By NANCY BENAC and JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

 WASHINGTON (AP) — Nice guy, so-so president.

 Taking stock of President Barack Obama at the five-year mark in his term, less than a third of Americans consider him to be an above-average chief executive. Nearly twice as many find him likable.

 A new Associated Press-GfK Poll finds the president’s personal image to be on the rebound after taking a hit during the government shutdown late last year, with 58 percent now sizing him up as very or somewhat likable. That’s up 9 percentage points from October, just after the shutdown.

 Yet as Obama prepares to stand before Americans for his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, people are largely pessimistic about the country’s direction, down on the condition of the economy and doubtful it will bounce back anytime soon. Unemployment? Seventy percent think it will go higher or stay the same.

Obama “wasn’t a total disappointment,” allows Joshua Parker, a 37-year-old small businessman in Smyrna, Tenn. “He didn’t put us into a Great Depression.”

But Parker, a self-described political independent and conservative, suspects that someone who understood the economy better could have done more.

“He would probably be a guy I would like to hang out with if he wasn’t president,” says Parker. “But I like a lot of people who are not qualified to be president.”

Across the country, Democrat Sabrina Carag, a 58-year-old retired accountant in Pleasanton, Calif., gives the president higher marks on both performance and personality.

If things aren’t great in the country, this former Republican reasons, it’s the fault of her old party and the Republicans in Congress.

“They block him every step of the way,” says Carag. “I don’t think it’s fair for them to say he’s been a bad president. How can you do anything if your hands are tied?”

From Huntsville, Texas, 51-year-old Wes Brummett thinks the economy will improve eventually — but it may be up to his grandchildren to do it.

Obama, this Democrat says, seems like an all-right guy and a good dad, but “he needs to show more leadership.”

“People are getting disheartened,” says Brummett, a self-employed computer systems administrator.

On the cusp of his sixth year in office, Obama is far removed from those heady days before his first inauguration, when two-thirds of Americans predicted he’d be an outstanding or above-average president.

Now, 31 percent think he’s been outstanding or above average, a quarter size him up as average, and 42 percent describe his presidency as below average or poor.

The ranks of those who believe he’s been outstanding or above average have edged down 6 points since just after Obama’s re-election in November 2012, reflecting slippage in how he’s viewed by Democrats, particularly liberals.

And while Obama’s likability numbers have recovered somewhat, doubts about his decisiveness and honesty persist. More than half of Americans wouldn’t describe him as decisive or honest. Fifty-two percent don’t find him particularly inspiring.

The president’s overall approval rating has remained fairly stable, with 45 percent approving and 53 percent saying they don’t. He’s picked up a little support, however, on his handling of unemployment and the federal government. People still view him negatively on both issues, but the share that disapproves has dropped 7 percentage points on each issue since October, largely a reflection of greater support among independents.

Congress continues to take its own outsized lumps in the polls as well. Just 14 percent of Americans approve of the way legislators are handling the job — up from a low of 5 percent after the government shutdown, but still nothing to celebrate. More than 9 in 10 Republicans say they disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job. It’s the first time that’s happened in AP-GfK polling since Republicans took control of the House after the 2010 elections.

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Jan. 17-21, 2014, using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,060 adults. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points for all respondents.

Survey respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and were later interviewed for this survey online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

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AP-GfK Poll: Majority of Americans favor diplomatic ties with Cuba

WASHINGTON (AP) — Nearly three-fourths of Americans think the United States should have diplomatic ties with Cuba, but they’re not sure how far to go in lifting sanctions, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll released Monday as full diplomatic relations between the two countries were formally restored.

“Relations between Cuba and the U.S. I think are long overdue. There’s no threat there,” said Alex Bega, 30, of Los Angeles. “I think the sanctions we have on them are pretty much obsolete.”

The resumption of normal ties ended decades of acrimony between the two nations that was hardened when President John F. Kennedy and Cuba’s Fidel Castro fought over Soviet expansion in the Americas. The new diplomatic status, however, does not erase lingering disputes, such as mutual claims for economic reparations, Havana’s desire to end a more than 50-year-old trade embargo and the U.S. push for Cuba to improve human rights and democracy.

The new poll also found that 58 percent of Americans approve of President Barack Obama’s handling of the U.S. relationship with Havana while 40 disapprove. By contrast, only 39 percent approve of his handling of the U.S. role in world affairs more generally, while 59 percent disapprove.

“I just disapprove of his politics in general,” said Julie Smith, 40, a university administrator from Bowling Green, Kentucky. “I just don’t think that us trying to improve relations with Cuba is beneficial to the United States.”

Respondents were split on what to do about the sanctions on Cuba. Forty-eight percent thought they should be decreased or eliminated entirely while 47 percent favored keeping them at their current level or increasing them. Five percent didn’t answer.

The story was different when it came to Iran.

Seventy-seven percent said they thought sanctions on Tehran should be kept where they are or increased, according to the poll, which was conducted just days before the U.S. signed an agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief. Under the agreement, Iran’s nuclear program will be curbed for a decade in exchange for potentially hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of relief from international sanctions.

Mary Barry, 57, of Arlington, Texas, is happy that the Obama administration opened diplomatic efforts with both Cuba and Iran, but is wary about lifting sanctions on the two countries.

“I think we need to have diplomatic relations with Iran and monitor their nuclear weapon,” said Berry, who works producing and staging corporate business meetings. But, she said: “I think we need to keep the sanctions in place on Iran to make sure they’re doing what they’ve promised they’re going to do because I think Iran is a country that you can’t really trust.”

On Cuba, she thinks it’s “just time” to restore diplomatic relations. But she favors a gradual lifting of sanctions on Cuba. “I don’t think they should be lifted immediately,” she said.

There is some momentum in Congress, however, to lift the trade embargo.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., backs a bipartisan bill in the Senate to lift the embargo, which she said must be done for the U.S. to avoid losing investment opportunities that will come with loosening of travel restrictions to the island.

“Once millions of American tourists are going, they will need places to stay and they will need food to eat. … So when they come, they are going to be starting to sleep in Spanish hotels and eat German foods because those countries will be able to supply what they need in the tourism industry, not to mention the computers and Wi-Fi and everything else,” Klobuchar said in an interview.

She predicted the legislation, which has 20 co-sponsors so far, would pass, although maybe not this year. “I know there are some people who have long been opposed to this,” she said.

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey thinks the Obama administration’s work to restore relations is an attempt to validate the Castro regime’s “brutal behavior.”

“I remain deeply concerned with ongoing human rights violations in Cuba,” Menendez said Monday. “There have been over 2,800 political arrests on the island this year alone.”

The AP-GfK Poll of 1,004 adults was conducted online July 9 to July 13, using a sample drawn from GfK’s probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided access at no cost to them.

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com


AP-GfK Poll: Sharp divisions after high court backs gay marriage

NEW YORK (AP) — The Supreme Court’s ruling last month legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide has left Americans sharply divided, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll that suggests support for gay unions may be down slightly from earlier this year.

The poll also found a near-even split over whether local officials with religious objections should be required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, with 47 percent saying that should be the case and 49 percent say they should be exempt.

Overall, if there’s a conflict, a majority of those questioned think religious liberties should win out over gay rights, according to the poll. While 39 percent said it’s more important for the government to protect gay rights, 56 percent said protection of religious liberties should take precedence.

The poll was conducted July 9 to July 13, less than three weeks after the Supreme Court ruled states cannot ban same-sex marriage.

According to the poll, 42 percent support same-sex marriage and 40 percent oppose it. The percentage saying they favor legal same-sex marriage in their state was down slightly from the 48 percent who said so in an April poll. In January, 44 percent were in favor.

Asked specifically about the Supreme Court ruling, 39 percent said they approve and 41 percent said they disapprove.

“What the Supreme Court did is jeopardize our religious freedoms,” said Michael Boehm, 61, an industrial controls engineer from the Detroit area who describes himself as a conservative-leaning independent.

“You’re going to see a conflict between civil law and people who want to live their lives according to their faiths,” Boehm said.

Boehm was among 59 percent of the poll respondents who said wedding-related businesses with religious objections should be allowed to refuse service to gay and lesbian couples. That compares with 52 percent in April.

Also, 46 percent said businesses more generally should be allowed to refuse service to same-sex couples, while 51 percent said that should not be allowed.

Claudette Girouard, 69, a retiree from Chesterfield Township, Michigan, said she is a moderate independent voter who has gradually become supportive of letting same-sex couples marry.

“I don’t see what the big hoopla is,” she said. “If they’re happy, why not?”

Girouard said local officials should be required to perform same-sex marriages, but does not think that wedding-related businesses should be forced to serve same-sex couples.

“If the official doesn’t like what he’s being asked to do, then quit,” she said. “But businesses are kind of independent, so if they have a strong belief against it, there are enough other businesses out there for someone to use.”

The poll found pronounced differences in viewpoints depending on political affiliation.

For example, 65 percent of Democrats, but only 22 percent of Republicans favored allowing same-sex couples to legally marry in their state. And 72 percent of Republicans but just 31 percent of Democrats said local officials with religious objections should be exempt from issuing marriage licenses.

By a 64-32 margin, most Democrats said it’s more important to protect gay rights than religious liberties when the two are in conflict. Republicans said the opposite, by 82-17.

Clarence Wells, 60, a conservative from Rockwood, Tennessee, said he strongly disapproved of the Supreme Court’s ruling. He anticipates friction as gay couples try to exercise their newfound rights and people with religious objections to same-sex marriage balk at accepting them.

“I don’t believe it’s going to go over smoothly,” said Wells. “I think a lot of them will be shunned in church. … I think there will businesses that are going to close, because some people are stubborn enough to not want to deal with it.”

Andrew Chan, 41, a moderate independent from Seattle, said he has tried to remain neutral on same-sex marriage.

“For me, it’s always been about tolerating,” said Chan, who works for a nonprofit organization. “I’ve got friends on both sides.”

Chan said he was happy for gays and lesbians who have found someone they want to marry, and he expressed some wariness toward politicians who might try to roll back the Supreme Court ruling.

“That just creates more division,” he said. “Are we looking to move the country forward or move it backward?”

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The AP-GfK Poll of 1,004 adults was conducted online July 9 to July 13, using a sample drawn from GfK’s probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. Some questions were ask of half samples of respondents and have smaller margins of error. Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided access at no cost to them.

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Swanson reported from Washington.

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Reach David Crary on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CraryAP and Emily Swanson at http://twitter.com/EL_Swan

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com