By Laurie Kellman ,AP
WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama is reaping political benefits from the brighter economic mood in the United States. A new poll shows that Republicans and Democrats alike are saying increasingly that the nation is heading in the right direction and most independents now approve the way he is dealing with the country’s post-recession period. Trouble could be ahead, however: Still-struggling Americans are fretting over rising gasoline prices. Just weeks before the warm weather travel season begins, the Associated Press-GfK survey finds pump prices rising in importance and most people unhappy with how the Democratic president has handled the issue. There is evidence that Americans are becoming markedly more optimistic, and that Obama benefits from that attitude. Thirty percent in the poll describe the economy as “good,” a 15-point increase since December and the highest level since the AP-GfK poll first asked the question in 2009. Roughly the same share say the economy got better in the past month, while 18 percent said it got worse, the most positive read in over a year. Looking ahead, four in 10 said they expect the economy to get better in the next year and a third said they think the number of unemployed people in the U.S. will decrease, the highest share on either question since last spring. A quarter of those surveyed said they expect the economy to get worse over the next 12 months, while 31 percent said it would stay the same, the poll found. As optimism has risen, Obama has received a corresponding bump in his approval rating for handling the economy. Forty-eight percent now say they approve of how he is handling it, up 9 points from December.
Gas Worries Still, for some it is hard to sense an improvement, or give Obama credit for it, when any extra money is being gobbled up at the gasoline pump. Overall, seven of 10 respondents called gas prices deeply important, up 6 points from December. Those who view gas prices as “extremely important” rose 9 points, to nearly 39 percent. The average cost of a gallon has risen 30 cents in that time, according to the Energy Information Administration. Views on the president’s handling of the issue are about the same as in December: Six in 10 respondents disapprove, including 36 percent who strongly feel that way, while 39 percent approve. Presidents do not have a great deal of control over oil or gas prices, which now are being influenced by higher U.S. demand and tensions over Iran’s nuclear program. But few factors generate as much interest and anxiety among Americans. Although Obama’s approval rating on the economy has climbed, his negative rating on handling gas prices is stagnant. Just 39 percent approve of what he is doing there, and 58 percent disapprove. According to the poll, Obama’s overall approval rating ticked upward slightly, from 44 percent in December to 49 percent now. Half of all adults now say Obama deserves to be re-elected, a 7-point rise from December that reverses a downward trend that had been in place since last May. The AP-GfK poll was conducted Feb. 16-20 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,000 adults nationwide and had a margin of error of 4.1 percent.