By JIM KUHNHENN and JENNIFER AGIESTA
WASHINGTON - The extreme funk that settled over the country during the summer has eased slightly, but Americans remain gloomy about the economy and more than half say President Barack Obama does not inspire confidence about a recovery.
A sizable majority - more than 7 in 10 - believe the country is headed in the wrong direction and, in a new high, 43 percent describe the nation's economy as "very poor," according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll. Among those surveyed, less than 40 percent say Obama's proposed remedies for high unemployment would increase jobs significantly.
The pessimism is not a good sign for the nation's recovery hopes and presents a more urgent challenge for Obama as he mounts his re-election bid.
About 4 in 10 think unemployment will rise in the coming year; just 23 percent expect it to decrease. And few expect the government to be able to help. Only 41 percent say the government can do much to create jobs, and less than 40 percent say the main elements of Obama's jobs proposal would increase employment significantly.
What's more, expectations for the coming year have not improved, with 41 percent believing the economy will remain the same, 27 percent saying it will get worse and 30 percent saying it will improve.
In a glimmer of a bright spot, less than a quarter of those surveyed say they think the economy worsened in the past month, compared with nearly half who felt that way in August. And Obama could find some solace in the poll's finding that 44 percent place heavy blame for the economy's state on President George W. Bush, while 27 percent put the blame on him.
Still, the public's mood is decidedly downbeat, creating yet another obstacle to economic growth, which relies in part on public optimism to spur demand.
Illustrating Obama's precarious perch, 9 percent of survey respondents who said he deserves to be re-elected said they could vote for one of the three leading Republicans seeking the presidential nomination.
"If Romney and Obama were going head to head at this point in time I would probably move to Romney," said Dale Bartholomew, 58, a manufacturing equipment salesman from Marengo, Ill. Bartholomew said he agrees with Obama's proposed economic remedies and said partisan divisions have blocked the president's initiatives.
But, he added: "His inability to rally the political forces, if you will, to accomplish his goal is what disappoints me."
Despite the high number of people who believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, Obama himself gets some benefit of the doubt. His approval ratings are holding steady, with 46 percent approving of his job as president and 52 percent disapproving. Obama's standing with the public is weakest on the economy and in his efforts to tackle unemployment, with about 6 in 10 disapproving of his handling of both.
Obama's standing still vastly exceeds that of Congress. In a slight improvement, Congress' approval ratings rose from its August low of 12 percent to 16 percent. Still, 82 percent disapprove of Congress, including 56 percent who say they "strongly disapprove."
Little illustrates the decline in the public's faith in Obama more than the sharp dip in confidence he has experienced since the highs he enjoyed immediately after his election. Specifically, only 43 percent of the respondents say they are confident that Obama "will be successful in bringing about the changes needed to improve the economy," compared with 72 percent who said they were confident of his abilities in November 2008.
"I believe he is doing all he knows how, but it's just not working," said Ann Anderson, 49, a college administrator from Homer Glen, Ill.
Democrats tend to stick by the president, expressing much more confidence in his ability to turn the economy around. More than 7 in 10 say they are at least somewhat confident of his abilities to improve the economy. Among independents, 37 percent are that confident and only 11 percent of Republicans share that view.
Still, the disappointment in Obama extends to some Democrats who believe he should stand his ground.
"When Obama got elected I was real hopeful for a lot of changes," said Dave Buerger, 60, a part-time registered nurse from New Salisbury, Ind. "Overall I would say that I'm real disappointed in his concessions to the banks and Wall Street and the Republicans. I think he needs to be more liberal and stand his ground more. I think he's given in too much."
Even as the public expresses disappointment in Obama and disapproval of Congress, only 41 percent of respondents say the government can do quite a bit or a great deal to create jobs. Three out of 10 believe government's impact on jobs is moderate and 29 percent say it can help create little or no jobs at all.
Similarly, a majority of the public does not hold much hope for the job creation prospects of either Obama's $447 billion jobs proposal or for measures proposed by congressional Republicans.
Obama's plan to create jobs by increasing spending on public works projects such as schools, roads and bridges finds only 37 percent of respondents believing it will create a significant number of jobs. Tax credits to companies that hire those who have unemployed for six months or more elicits a similar response.
Only 27 percent of the respondents said the Republican plan to reduce the number of regulations on businesses would create a significant number of jobs; 45 percent say it would create few or no jobs.
The poll, however, found substantial support - 62 percent - for a proposal by Senate Democrats to pay for Obama's jobs proposal with a surtax on incomes over $1 million. One quarter of the respondents opposed the idea and 10 percent said they were neutral. Though the surtax has little or no chance of passing, the poll results underscore the view of Democrats that the proposal has political appeal.
Anderson, the college administrator from Illinois, voiced cautious support for the tax on millionaires.
"That's a tough call. Yes, I do, but that's only because I'm not one of them," she said. "Should they pay their fair share? Absolutely. Should they pay a certain percentage? I don't know how to answer that."
But Teresa Rowe, 53, a dance team consultant from Richland, Wash., said she preferred an overhaul of the entire tax system.
"They'll go after the millionaires first and then those slightly below millionaires. It's a slippery slope," she said. "They need to look at the entire tax system and revise the whole system."
The Associated Press-GfK Poll was conducted Oct. 13-17 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,000 adults nationwide, and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Associated Press writers Nancy Benac and Stacy A. Anderson and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.