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: Americans go to polls against backdrop of an uneven economy

By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. economy is lifting job growth and wages but not voters’ spirits.

Americans are choosing a president against a backdrop of slow but steady growth that has managed to restore the economy from the crushing setback of the Great Recession. The government’s October jobs report , released Friday, showed that hiring remains solid, with 161,000 jobs added. The unemployment rate is a low 4.9 percent.

Yet the recovery, the slowest since World War II, has left many Americans feeling left behind, especially those who lack high skills or education or who live outside major population centers.

“The (typical) U.S. household is in a much better spot than they were eight years ago,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “But it hasn’t been a great decade for anyone either. You’ve still got a big chunk of the population who feels this hasn’t worked for them.”

The economy’s weak spots are a top concern for a majority of voters, who say the U.S. economy is in poor shape, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. At the same time, they say their own personal finances are good.

Fifty-three percent of voters say the economy is “poor,” while 46 percent say “good,” according to the poll, conducted Oct. 20-24. Yet 65 percent say their own finances are good, versus 34 percent who rate them poor.

Seventy-three percent of Hillary Clinton supporters say that economy is good; just 16 percent of Donald Trump supporters say so.

And while 60 percent of whites say the economy is poor, 60 percent of nonwhites call it good. Yet whites and nonwhites are about equally likely to say their own personal finances are good.

Consider 73-year-old Charles Muller, who lives outside Trenton, New Jersey, and describes his personal finances as fine. He has a pension from 26 years as a state employee and receives Social Security.

But the broader economy seems fairly weak to Muller. A friend was laid off during the recession, then earned a teaching certificate, and yet still can’t find a full-time teaching job. And a friend’s daughter who recently graduated from college is stuck as an assistant manager of a dollar store.

“I know a lot of people who are struggling and have been unable to find jobs commensurate with their education levels,” Muller said. He is supporting Trump, though he sees the major presidential nominees as “the two worst candidates I’ve ever been given a choice of.”

Here’s a snapshot of the U.S. economy of the eve of the elections:

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SLOWER BUT STILL-SOLID HIRING

The job market has provide itself resilient.

Employers have added an average of 181,000 jobs a month this year. That’s down from last year’s robust 229,000 average. But it’s nearly double the monthly pace needed to lower the unemployment rate over time. The number of people seeking unemployment benefits is near a 40-year low — evidence that layoffs are scarce and most Americans are enjoying strong job security.

Blake Zalcberg, president of OFM, a furniture manufacturer in Raleigh, North Carolina, hopes to add nine employees to his 58-person company, including graphic artists, photographers and sales staff. He expects sales to grow by a third next year:

“It’s a fairly robust furniture market,” he said.

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PAY FINALLY ACCELERATING

With the unemployment rate down to 4.9 percent from the a peak of 10 percent in 2009, businesses have been forced to compete harder for new employees. That’s giving workers more bargaining power when they seek new jobs and finally boosting pay. Average hourly wages grew 2.8 percent in October from a year earlier — the fastest 12-month pace in seven years. Still, historically speaking, that’s still not great. Wages typically rise at about 3.5 percent each year in a healthy economy.

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CAUTIOUS CONSUMERS

Steady hiring and modest pay increases have emboldened more Americans to buy high-cost items like new cars. Auto sales are running near last year’s record pace of more than 17 million vehicles. Yet caution still reigns: Americans’ spending grew just 2.1 percent in the July-August quarter, down from a much healthier 4.3 percent in the previous three months.

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HOUSING HAS NEARLY RECOVERED

The bursting of the last decade’s housing bubble wiped out trillions in household wealth, cost more than 5 million Americans their homes and triggered the Great Recession. Yet the home market has mostly recovered, with purchase prices just 7 percent below their 2006 peaks. Greater home values have helped many families recoup some of their lost wealth. Sales of existing homes have plateaued this year at a nearly healthy level of about 5.4 million.

Doug Duncan, chief economist at Fannie Mae, foresees sales growth slowing slow next year. But more younger Americans are starting to buy homes, suggesting that millennials are tiring of living in apartments — or their parents’ basements— and are starting to move out.

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BUSINESSES HOLDING BACK

Companies with optimistic outlooks typically spend more on computers, machinery and other equipment to keep up with demand. Instead, in recent months the opposite has happened: Business investment in new equipment has fallen for four straight quarters. Some of that pullback occurred because oil drillers slashed spending on steel pipe and other gear in response to sharply lower oil prices. But many companies are also likely holding off on new spending until after the election, when potential economic policy changes will be clearer.

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WEAK WORKER PRODUCTIVITY

The U.S. economy has failed to grow much more efficient. Since the recession began in 2007, productivity — or output per hour of work — has grown at less than one-third the annual pace it did from 2000 through 2007. Rising productivity is vital to raising living standards, because it enables companies to raise pay without raising prices.

Economists blame a range of factors for the slowdown: Americans are starting fewer new companies, which tend to be quicker to adopt new technologies. And weaker investment in roads, ports and other infrastructure has slowed shipping and commuting times.

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MANY STILL LEFT BEHIND

Millions of Americans haven’t benefited from the consistent hiring of the past several years. Middle-income jobs in manufacturing and office work were permanently lost in the recession and have been replaced by lower-paying work in retail and fast food. Many of the unemployed have given up looking for work and are no longer counted as unemployed.

Nicholas Eberstadt, author of a new book, “Men Without Work,” notes that this has been a long-term phenomenon. For every unemployed man ages 25 through 54, three others are neither working nor looking for work. That ratio has doubled since 1990.

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AP Polling Editor Emily Swanson contributed to this report.

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Follow Chris Rugaber on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/ChrisRugaber


AP-GfK Poll: Most believe allegations about Trump and women
WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump’s behavior has long grated on Carolyn Miller, but the allegations he sexually assaulted women was one factor that helped her decide in the last week to cast her ballot for Hillary Clinton.
“I don’t think she’s a bad person. Trump, I think, is a bad person,” the 70-year-old Fort Myers, Florida, resident said. As for Trump’s accusers, Miller added, “I believe them.” And she said her vote for Clinton is “a default.”

Miller is among the more than 7 in 10 Americans who say in a new Associated Press-GfK poll that they believe the women who say the Republican presidential candidate kissed or groped them without their consent, a verdict that may have turned off enough voters, including some Republicans, to add to his challenges in the presidential race.

 Forty-two percent of Republican voters and 35 percent of Trump’s own supporters think the accusations are probably true. Men and women are about equally likely to think so.

While the poll suggests the wave of allegations about Trump’s treatment of women may blunt the impact of voters’ concerns about Clinton, it was taken before Friday’s news that the FBI will investigate whether there is classified information in newly uncovered emails related to its probe of her private server. Those emails were not from her server, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss details publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Before the development, the poll found that about half of voters say her use of the private server while she was secretary of state makes them less likely to vote for her. But they were more likely to say that Trump’s comments about women bother them a lot than to say the same about Clinton’s email server, 51 percent to 43 percent.

Since September, Clinton seems to have consolidated her support within her own party and drawn undecided voters such as Miller to her campaign, or at least pushed them away from Trump. The billionaire’s recent trouble with women seems to be one factor preventing him from doing the same.

He feuded with former Miss Universe Alicia Machado after Clinton noted he’d called her “Miss Piggy” for gaining weight while she wore the crown. Days later, a 2005 recording surfaced in which Trump can be heard describing himself sexually assaulting women in a conversation with Billy Bush, then the host of “Access Hollywood.”

Several women have since publicly accused Trump of groping and kissing them without permission, including a People magazine reporter who said Trump attacked her when his wife, Melania, was out of the room.

Trump called his remarks on the video “locker room talk,” dismissed the accusations as “fiction” and said of several accusers that they aren’t attractive enough to merit his attention.

Asked Thursday on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor” whether he thinks he would be ahead were it not for the “Access Hollywood” video, Trump replied, “I just don’t know. I think it was very negative.”

A majority of voters, 52 percent, say allegations about the way Trump treats women make them less likely to vote for him, including a fifth of Republican likely voters. And within that group, only about a third say they will vote for him, with about a third supporting Clinton and the remainder supporting third party candidates.

That may help explain why just 79 percent of Republican in the poll said they’re supporting Trump compared with 90 percent of Democrats supporting Clinton. Trump needs to close that gap to have any shot at victory.

Trump has tried to equate the accusations against him with charges of infidelity and sexual assault leveled for years against his rival’s husband, former President Bill Clinton. Trump has paraded the former president’s accusers before the cameras and accused Hillary Clinton of undermining her husband’s accusers.

The poll shows a majority of voters don’t buy Trump’s attempt at equivalence. Six in 10 say the allegations against the Clintons have no impact on their vote. That’s despite the fact that 63 percent think Hillary Clinton has probably threatened or undermined women who have accused her husband of sexual misconduct.

“The vote will be about Hillary Clinton, not her husband,” said Ryan Otteson, 33, of Salt Lake City, who’s voting for a third-party candidate, conservative independent Evan McMullin.

Valori Waggoner, a 26-year-old from Belton, Texas, said she believes Hillary Clinton probably did intimidate her husband’s accusers, but she said it makes no difference to how Waggoner is voting.

Waggoner was not going to vote for Clinton anyway, because as a doctor, Waggoner said she sees firsthand the inefficiency of the national health care plan that Clinton supports. But the alleged wrongdoing by Trump made her less likely to vote for the Republican. Instead, she’s backing Libertarian Gary Johnson.

The degree of alleged wrongdoing by the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, Waggoner said, “are not equal.”

Most likely voters in the poll say they think Trump has little to no respect for women, with female voters especially likely to say he has none at all.

Clinton leads female likely voters by a 22 point margin in the poll, and even has a slight 5 point lead among men. In September’s AP-GfK poll, Clinton led women by a 17 point margin and trailed slightly by 6 points among men.

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The AP-GfK Poll of 1,546 adults, including 1,212 likely voters, was conducted online Oct. 20-24, 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 2.75 percentage points, and for likely voters is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Respondents were first selected randomly using telephone or mail survey methods and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t have access to the internet were provided access for free.

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Online:

Poll results: http://ap-gfkpoll.com