As the debate in Washington heats up over new regulations on financial markets, the public is divided evenly over whether the Republican Party or Democratic Party (36% each) can do a better job of dealing with banks and financial institutions. Another 28% offer no preference between the two. The parties are also even when it comes to dealing with the job situation – 36% see the GOP as stronger, 37% the Democratic Party. The last time this issue was tested in 2006, the Democrats held a wide 47% to 29% advantage on jobs.

Similarly, neither party has an advantage on two other key issues that may be addressed in Congress this year, immigration and energy. Currently, 36% say the GOP can do the better job on immigration, while 35% pick the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party holds a slim edge (40% vs. 32%) when it comes to dealing with the nation’s energy problems, but its lead has narrowed substantially over the past two years. As recently as last August, 47% favored the Democrats and just 25% the Republicans on this issue.

Since last summer, there has been a sharp turnaround in the balance of public opinion with respect to foreign policy. In August 2009, 44% favored the Democratic Party on foreign policy and 31% the GOP. But today, the Republican Party holds a slim 39% to 34% edge in this issue area.

On each of these issues, the balance of opinion among independents generally mirrors the balance of opinion among the public at large, as Republican and Democratic views offset each other.

But the GOP’s edge among independents on both foreign policy and the budget deficit is significant because they are less likely to favor Democrats on these issues. The GOP holds a very small 38% to 35% edge overall on the deficit, but the margin is 38% to 25% among independents. Similarly, the GOP’s slim 39% to 34% overall lead on foreign policy becomes a 37% to 26% advantage when independents are analyzed separately. On both issues, independents are roughly twice as likely as partisans to volunteer that neither party will do a better job.

A Leaderless GOP

To most Americans, there continues to be no clear leader of the Republican Party. Only about three-in-ten (29%) can name someone who they think of as the leader of the GOP these days. Just over half (52%) say they don’t know, and 18% volunteer that “nobody” leads the party.

Among those offering a name, John McCain continues to be mentioned more frequently than any other Republican as the party’s leader, though only 8% of Americans cite him. Sarah Palin is named by 4%, Mitt Romney by 3%, and 2% of Americans name Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich as the Republican Party’s leader.

More than a third (36%) of Republicans name someone as the party’s leader, up from 28% in December. But even among Republicans, 46% say they don’t know and 17% say nobody leads the party. As with the public at large, McCain’s name comes up more frequently than any other (11%), followed by Mitt Romney (6%) and Sarah Palin (5%). Among conservative Republicans, Romney’s name comes up about as often as McCain’s (8% vs. 9%), with Palin (6%) and Gingrich (5%) not far behind. Just 2% of the public names Rush Limbaugh as the leader of the GOP; however, 8% of liberal Democrats say Limbaugh leads the party.

Obama’s Job Approval

Barack Obama’s overall job approval ratings have remained steady in recent months, with a slim plurality approving of his job performance (currently 47%), and nearly as many disapproving (42%). About eight-in-ten Democrats (79%) approve of Obama’s job performance, up slightly from a low of 74% shortly before the passage of health care reform legislation in March. Just 18% of Republicans approve of Obama – largely unchanged over the course of 2010. Independents are divided over Obama’s job performance: 46% disapprove while 41% approve.

Public reactions to Obama’s handling of major domestic policies have also remained fairly steady. On the key issues of the economy and health care, slim majorities disapprove (54% and 51%, respectively) with little change over the course of the year. Health care remains the single most polarizing issue – with 70% of Democrats approving of Obama’s job compared with 11% of Republicans.

Nearly half of Americans (47%) say they disapprove of Obama’s handling of the nation’s immigration policy, while just 29% approve. This is largely unchanged from January, when 50% disapproved and 30% approved. Obama’s low ratings on immigration reflect the fact that fewer than half of Democrats (45%) say they approve of his performance on the issue. Nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) offer no opinion on Obama’s handling of immigration.

Obama receives more positive (43%) than negative (34%) ratings on the issue of energy policy, with little change in the balance of opinion since January. As with immigration, many Americans (23%) have no opinion one way or the other.

There has been more fluctuation in public ratings of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan. Currently, about as many Americans approve (41%) as disapprove (42%) of how Obama is dealing with the situation in Afghanistan. The balance of opinion was much more positive (51% approve, 35% disapprove) a month ago. In November, prior to Obama’s announcement of his Afghanistan strategy, more Americans disapproved (49%) than approved (36%). As in previous months, Obama receives better marks from Republicans for his handling of Afghanistan (31% approve) than any other issue. The partisan gap on this issue is smaller than any other, as barely half (54%) of Democrats offer a positive assessment.