By JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

 WASHINGTON (AP) — A month after the bitterly fought election, President Barack Obama has his highest approval ratings since the killing of Osama bin Laden, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll, and more Americans say the nation is heading in the right direction now than at any time since the start of his first term.

 Obama’s approval rating stands at 57 percent, the highest since May 2011, when U.S. Navy SEALs killed the terror leader, and up 5 percentage points from before the election. And 42 percent say the country is on the right track, up from 35 percent in January 2009.

 A majority think it’s likely that the president will be able to improve the economy in his second term.

 ”Compared to the alternative, I’m more optimistic about government and the economy with him in office,” said Jack Reinholt, an independent from Bristol, R.I., who backed Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. “I feel he has the better path laid out.”

 Still, four years of partisan conflict in Washington have taken a toll on the president’s image.

 ”I’m less enthusiastic about him than the first time he was elected,” Reinholt added.

 Americans are divided on what kind of president Obama has been, with 37 percent saying he’s been above average or outstanding and 36 percent describing his tenure as below average or poor. Another quarter say he’s been just average.

 Obama held much stronger numbers on this measure at the start of his first term, with two-thirds expecting an above-average presidency. And the public’s take on Obama’s relative performance has bounced back and forth over his four years in office, moving higher following the death of bin Laden, after declining in the summer of 2010, a few months before the GOP took back control of the House.

 Looking ahead to Obama’s final four years, most Americans doubt he can reduce the federal budget deficit. But almost 7 in 10 say he will be able to implement the health care law passed in March 2010 and remove most troops from Afghanistan. And most think he’ll be able to improve the economy and boost race relations in his final term, though both those figures are down significantly from January 2009.

 About a quarter say the economy is in good shape in the new poll, similar to pre-election poll results, but optimism about the economy has dipped since before the election. In October, 52 percent of Americans said they expected the economy to get better in the next year; now, that stands at 40 percent. Among Republicans, the share saying the economy will improve in the coming year has dropped sharply since before the election, from 42 percent in October to 16 percent now.

 ”The economy, if left alone, will gradually improve because of our people wanting to better themselves and make more money,” said Bobby Jordan, 76, a Romney voter from Green Valley, Ariz. “They’re going to be doing things to improve their own position, which will collectively mean the economy will gradually get a little better. But (Obama’s) not doing anything to improve the economy.”

 Overall, the public gives Democrats the advantage on handling the economy, 45 percent saying they trust the president’s party to do a better job on it, 39 percent favoring Republicans.

 As Obama took office four years ago, Republicans were mostly optimistic about his chances for improving the economy, with nearly 7 in 10 saying it was likely the new president could improve it in his first four years in office. Now, just 21 percent of Republicans feel the next four years are that promising. Independents, too, have grown skeptical about Obama’s ability to turn around the economy. About three-quarters thought he could fix it in 2009; just a third do now.

 Those sharp partisan divides in expectations are represented in the president’s approval ratings. About 9 in 10 Democrats say they approve of the way Obama is handling his job, compared with just 2 in 10 Republicans. That gap approaches the 82-point partisan gap in George W. Bush’s approval ratings according to Gallup polling in December 2004.

 The Associated Press-GfK Poll was conducted Nov. 29-Dec. 3 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,002 adults nationwide. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points; it is larger for subgroups.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Jennifer Agiesta is director of polling for The Associated Press.

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Associated Press News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and AP writer Stacy A. Anderson contributed to this report.

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Online:

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

 How the AP-GfK poll was conducted

 The Associated Press-GfK poll on Obama and politics was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from Nov. 29 to Dec. 3. It is based on landline telephone and cellphone interviews with a nationally representative random sample of 1,002 adults. Digits in the phone numbers dialed were generated randomly to reach households with unlisted and listed landline and cellphone numbers.

 Interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish.

 As is done routinely in surveys, results were weighted, or adjusted, to ensure that responses accurately reflect the population’s makeup by factors such as age, sex, education and race. In addition, the weighting took into account patterns of phone use — landline only, cell only and both types — by region.

 No more than 1 time in 20 should chance variations in the sample cause the results to vary by more than plus or minus 3.9 percentage points from the answers that would be obtained if all adults in the U.S. were polled.

 There are other sources of potential error in polls, including the wording and order of questions.

Topline results are available at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com and http://surveys.ap.org.

 

The questions and results are available at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com.

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