LAURIE KELLMAN, Associated Press
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama is reaping political benefits from the country's brighter economic mood. A new poll shows that Republicans and Democrats alike are increasingly saying the nation is heading in the right direction and most independents now approve the way he's addressing the nation's post-recession period.
But trouble could be ahead: Still-struggling Americans are fretting over rising gasoline prices. Just weeks before the summer travel season begins, the Associated Press-GfK survey finds pump prices rising in importance and most people unhappy with how Democratic president has handled the issue.
It's seemingly no coincidence that Obama this week is promoting the expansion of domestic oil and gas exploration and the development of new forms of energy.
It's his latest attempt to show that he, more than any of the Republican presidential contenders, knows that voters' pocketbooks remain pinched even as the economy improves overall. And on that question of empathy, solid majorities continue to view him as someone who "understands the problems of ordinary Americans" and "cares about people like you," the AP-GfK survey found.
There is evidence that the nation is 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's handling it, up 9 points from December.
Still, for some it's hard to sense an improvement - or give Obama credit for it - when any extra money is being gobbled up at the gasoline pump.
"I give him credit for trying to make improvements, but I don't believe it's had that much effect," said Michael Lee Real of Indianola, Iowa, a city water authority worker who counts himself as a Republican-leaning independent. The cost of gasoline is "one of the big things," says Real, 58. "It fluctuates so much, it makes it hard for me to budget my money."
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 don't 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. The rise in prices, faced almost daily by voters, could undercut Obama's argument that he's strengthening the economy and making families more financially secure.
Though 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's doing there, and 58 percent disapprove.
Republicans, locked in battle for the right to face Obama in the general election, expect gas prices to be a top issue by the time Americans set out on their summer vacations. The four vying for the GOP nomination already are warning of higher prices and are pushing for more drilling and relaxed regulations on domestic oil production. Some are talking dollars and cents: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is dangling the prospect of $2.50-a-gallon gas if he's elected; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is warning of $5-a-gallon gas if he's not.
Generally, the public's approval of Obama has risen with the economy's climb from recession.
The unemployment rate dropped to 8.3 percent in January, the lowest level in nearly three years. The housing market is flashing signs of health ahead of the spring buying season, with mortgage rates still low, sales of previously occupied homes at their highest level since May 2010, and more first-time buyers making purchases.
The nation is far from a full recovery. Millions of Americans remain out of work. And Wall Street investors still worry over the details of Greece's economic bailout plan.
According to the poll, Obama's overall approval rating ticked upward slightly, from 44 percent in December to 49 percent now.
The 9-point approval increase for his handling of the economy comes from Democrats and independents, constituencies crucial to Obama's re-election hopes. Among Democrats, his approval on the economy has shot from 67 percent to 83 percent. Among independents, 49 percent now approve, up from 38 percent in December.
Obama also gained support among women during a period in which his administration seemed to stumble over whether religious employers should be forced to pay for contraception. In overall approval, Obama rebounded from 43 percent among women in December to 53 percent now, according to the survey.
And 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 May.
More than eight in 10 Democrats say he should be elected to a second term, and half of all independents feel the same way, the survey found.
The AP-GfK poll was conducted Feb. 16-20 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,000 adults nationwide and had a margin of error of 4.1 percent.
AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta, Associated Press writer Stacy A. Anderson and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.