by Matthew Rusling
WASHINGTON, May 25 (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney both have their strengths and weaknesses, which put the two neck-in-neck in the lead-up to November's presidential elections.
Obama leads by a hair in poll averages compiled by Real Clear Politics, with the president ahead by nearly 2 percentage points, which is not enough to make a difference.
Obama is running into economic headwinds, with Americans still highly concerned about the state of the economy, and, as a result, largely dissatisfied with the country's direction. Still, his overall job approval rating is not as low as that of other presidents running for re-election in a difficult economy, Gallup said in a report released Thursday.
"In general, Obama is well liked and that's a strength," said Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "People think he has been a good steward of foreign policy."
"Romney is not as well known at this point and his unfavorable ratings are high. Both men have solid support among partisans. Both men are seen as strong family men. Both are seen as honest. Although people disapprove of the way Obama has handled the economy, they aren't sure Romney would do better," Bowman said.
Indeed, likability is a key issue, and some argue that Obama's personal appeal is making his approval rating higher than it might otherwise be, given the economy. Obama is also preferred over Romney for being a strong leader. "Those are all valuable calling cards with voters," Gallup said.
Romney's advantages are mainly economic. He is preferred for handling the economy and the federal budget deficit -- both high on Americans' list of issue priorities. And he's slightly more likely to be seen as the better manager.
While his favorable rating isn't high, it has improved to match Obama's, which may be sufficient to win if Americans' vote is guided mainly by their wallet, according to the Gallup report. And since the economy will be voters' major issue, that may give Romney an advantage.
But pundits said Obama must be careful not to take his eyes off the ball, and some argue that his recent coming out in favor of gay marriage may be viewed as a sideshow by voters. Others said it might get him some independent voters.
Dan Mahaffee, an analyst with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, said that one of Obama's strengths is that he is an inspirational speaker, seen as a visionary leader and boasts a strong foreign policy record after the death of Osama bin Laden, leader of the terror group al-Qaida and mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Weaknesses include seeming aloof from ordinary Americans, struggling to work with Congress and baggage from nearly a full term as president. His health care reform and financial regulation are also unpopular with many Americans.
Romney's strengths include that he is seen as a strong business leader, which many believe would make him a good president. But like Obama, the wealthy former business executive can also seem aloof to average Americans, and he is also perceived as flip-flopping on some issues, Mahaffee said.
All eyes will stay on the economy's trajectory over the summer - whether it seems to be getting better or worse -- according to which Obama will be judged by Americans to be their leader of choice to steer the economy. If he cannot turn around negative perceptions by Labor Day, which is on Sept. 3, it will be too late for the president, analysts said.
Romney has blasted Obama on the economy in recent days, accusing him of anti-capitalist sentiments.
"There's no question he's attacking capitalism," Romney said in an interview on Fox TV Thursday morning. "In part I think because he doesn't understand how the free economy works. He's never had a job in the free economy, neither has Vice President (Joe) Biden. They spent their lives as either community organizers or as members of the political class."
Special Report: U.S. Presidential Election 2012