WASHINGTON -- Americans are growing more optimistic about the U.S. economy, a sentiment that is benefiting President Barack Obama despite public disenchantment with his handling of rising gasoline prices and swollen government budget deficits.
An Associated Press-GfK poll shows that more than 2 out of 5 people believe the U.S. economy will get better, while a third think it will stay the same and nearly a fourth think it will get worse, a rebound from last month's more pessimistic attitude. And, for the first time since the 100-day mark of his presidency, slightly more than half approve of Obama's stewardship of the economy.
Both findings represent a boost for Obama, though he still must overcome ill will over government red ink and the price of gas at the pump, now hovering around $4 a gallon.
But the public's brighter economic outlook also could signal a boost to the current recovery, which relies to a great degree on consumer behavior. A public that is confident about economic performance is more likely to spend more and accelerate the economy's resurgence.
The poll was conducted May 5-9 in the aftermath of the U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The spike in public esteem for Obama as a result of that successful clandestine mission may have helped Obama's standing on issues other than national security.
The poll coincides with renewed attention in Washington to the nation's growing debt and the federal government's long-term budget deficits, so any positive signs from the public could help Obama push his policy proposals. A bipartisan team of lawmakers is working with Vice President Joe Biden to identify spending cuts. Meanwhile, lawmakers also are discussing major structural changes to the tax system and to the government's mammoth benefits programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
The results of the AP-GfK poll stood out because other surveys taken after bin Laden's death, while showing a spike in support for the president, continued to indicate dissatisfaction by a majority for his handling of the economy. Still, like the AP-GfK poll, other surveys also found American attitudes about the state of the nation improving.
Forty-five percent of those polled in the AP-GfK survey said the country was now moving in the right direction, an increase of 10 percentage points from five weeks ago. And attitudes about life in general remained positive, with 4 out of 5 respondents saying they were happy or somewhat happy with their circumstances.
"Once you hit bottom the only one way to go is up," said John Bair, 23, a photographer and filmmaker from Pittsburgh. "Everybody that I come in contact with seems to be on the upswing. I consider that a pretty good thing."
But Bair, who describes himself as a moderate to conservative independent, doesn't believe Obama deserves re-election. He strongly disapproves of the president's handling of gasoline prices and says Obama should do more to increase domestic production of oil.
"When I'm paying $4 for a gallon of gas, it gets me wondering what's going on," he said.
Obama has tried to appear engaged on gas prices even though there is little presidents can do to alter market fluctuations. He has called for new renewable energy policies and for eliminating tax breaks for oil and gas companies, while conceding those steps will not address the current price increases. The efforts have not given the public much to cheer about, however. A total of 61 percent disapprove of Obama's approach to the rising cost of gasoline.
Indeed, for all the long-term confidence that the economy will recover, the public is hardly upbeat about the current state of things. Only 21 percent describe the economy as good and 73 percent describe it as poor. About 1 in 5 thought the economy got better during the past month; an equal number thought it got worse.
A favorable jobs report last Friday showed that private companies had exceeded expectations by creating 268,000 jobs last month, the third month of at least 200,000 new jobs. And while unemployment has dropped from a high of 10.1 percent nationally in October 2009, it is now 9 percent, the same as in January.
"We haven't done anything to create the jobs that (Obama) promised -that all of them promised," said John Grezaffi, 60, a rancher from Pointe Coupee Parish, La.
Grezaffi, taking a short break from working to shore up his land against a rising Mississippi River on Wednesday, said he somewhat supports Obama but does not support his handling of the economy and believes the country is moving in the wrong direction.
Approaching retirement age, he said he wasn't eager to see his upcoming benefits shortchanged.
"I'm willing to give up a little, but not everything when you see the waste that occurs in so many other areas," he said.
Deana Floss, 39, a Springfield, Ohio, restaurant cook and owner of a cleaning business, voiced lukewarm approval for Obama even though she doesn't care for the state of the economy or Obama's handling of the nation's budget deficits.
"I don't think he has done a very bad job with the economy," she said. "It was already going downhill when he took the reins."
The Associated Press-GfK Poll was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.