By LAURIE KELLMAN, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.

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     AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta, Associated Press writer Stacy A. Anderson and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

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     Online:

     www.ap-GfKpoll.com

 

How the poll on President Obama and the economy was conducted

 

By The Associated Press

    The Associated Press-GfK Poll on President Obama and the economy was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from Feb. 16-20. It is based on landline and cellphone telephone interviews with a nationally representative random sample of 1,000 adults. Interviews were conducted with 700 respondents on landline telephones and 300 on cellular phones.

     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 one time in 20 should chance variations in the sample cause the results to vary by more than plus or minus 4.1 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.

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

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

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


AP-GfK Poll: Minorities, young Americans still backing Obama

WASHINGTON (AP) — Even as the public remains closely divided about his presidency, Barack Obama is holding on to his support from the so-called “Obama coalition” of minorities, liberals and young Americans, an Associated Press-GfK poll shows, creating an incentive for the next Democratic presidential nominee to stick with him and his policies.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, by comparison, is viewed somewhat less favorably by the key voting groups whose record-setting turnout in 2008 propelled Obama to the White House and will be crucial to her own success.

Roughly two-thirds of Hispanics view Obama favorably, compared to just over half of Hispanics who say the same about Clinton. Among self-identified liberals, Obama’s favorability stands at 87 percent, to Clinton’s 72 percent. Half of Americans under the age of 30 view Obama favorably, compared to just 38 percent for his former secretary of state.

The findings offer a window into the factors at play as Clinton decides how closely to embrace Obama, his record and his policies in her campaign for president. Although associating herself with Obama could turn off some independent and Republican-leaning voters, electoral math and changing demographics make it critical for Democrats to turn out high numbers of Hispanics, African Americans and young voters.

Overall, Obama’s job approval rating stands at 43 percent, a leveling off following an AP-GfK poll conducted in early February that put his approval at 47 percent — slightly higher than it had been through most of 2014. The number of Americans who disapprove of Obama’s job performance has stayed relatively steady at 55 percent.

“He just seems to have something in his mind that he wants to accomplish and keeps trying to get it done,” said Christine Klauder, a self-described liberal from southern New Jersey. Klauder said she voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and that her support hasn’t dropped off. “He’s more oriented toward the kind of people that I feel that we are, have been all my life.”

Contrast that with Klauder’s views about Clinton, who has yet to win her enthusiastic support. “Being a woman, I think it would be wonderful to see her in — but I’m not sure,” Klauder said. “I think maybe her time has passed.”

Obama, whose troubles in the polls were seen as a drag on Democratic in last year’s midterm elections, has also managed to hold on to recent gains he’s made among core supporters.

When AP-GfK polled in October 2014, Obama’s approval rating among Hispanics had plummeted to 39 percent, as Hispanic advocacy groups demanded that Obama take aggressive action on immigration. One month later, he did just that — and his job approval among Hispanics now stands at 56 percent. Whereas 72 percent of liberals approved of Obama’s performance in October, that number now appears to have climbed, to 82 percent.

The survey reinforces a concern expressed by many Democrats about Clinton’s candidacy: that she just doesn’t inspire the levels of enthusiasm among traditional Democratic constituencies that were so critical to Obama’s success.

In the first weeks of her campaign, Clinton has promoted a number of populist ideas surrounding immigration, voting rights and economics that hew closely to themes that Obama has made central to his presidency. Although she distanced herself from Obama by suggesting she would have voted against giving him expedited authority to negotiate trade deals, she offered explicit support for the controversial nuclear deal with Iran that Obama announced this week.

Esther Danner, a 61-year-old from Hanover, Maryland, said she’s continued to support Obama because she feels he’s made progress on overhauling health care, promoting same-sex marriage and lifting the ban on gays in the military. Danner, who works part time at an African American heritage museum, said she thought Obama’s full-throated support would go a long way to persuade minorities and young Americans to show up to vote for the next Democratic nominee.

“The last eight years have been preparing for the 2016 election,” Danner said. “The current generation that voted for Obama, like myself, will probably continue the journey with the next Democratic candidate.”

In an AP-GfK poll conducted in January and February, nearly half of Americans — 47 percent — described the economy as “good,” almost as many as the 51 percent who called it “poor.” Since then, views of the economy have grown slightly more negative, with 41 percent now saying the economy is “good” and 57 percent saying it’s “poor.”

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The AP-GfK Poll of 1,004 adults was conducted online from Thursday to Monday, 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, but higher for subgroups such as Hispanics and African Americans.

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Associated Press writer Stacy A. Anderson contributed to this report.

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Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP and Emily Swanson at http://twitter.com/EL_Swan