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 favor farmers & food during drought
LOS ANGELES (AP) — When water gets scarce and the government slaps restrictions on its use, who should be first in line at the spigot? Farmers, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll.

The national survey provides a glimpse into how Americans think water should be managed at a time when abnormally dry weather has afflicted swaths of the country, and water shortages in some states have led to conflict over who should get water and how much.

Two-thirds of Americans believe water is a limited resource that can be depleted if people use too much, the poll found, and 70 percent believe that government should restrict how much residents and businesses use when drought takes hold.

When asked to rate the importance of competing needs when water is scarce, 74 percent said agriculture should be a top or high priority, followed by residential needs (66 percent), wildlife and ecosystems (54 percent) and business and industry (42 percent).

To Cheryl Hendricks in parched California, it’s simple: To put food on the table “we rely on agriculture.”

“It’s getting kind of serious when you are not giving water to people who are producing food,” said Hendricks, 63, of Rancho Cucamonga, about 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

She and her husband are taking shorter showers and removing lawn in response to California’s four-year drought, but for growers and ranchers “it’s more important for them to have it.”

The poll’s findings appear to run against criticism of farming practices that demand vast amounts of water. In California, for example, agriculture accounts for 80 percent of all water drawn from rivers, streams and the ground. Producing California’s almond crop consumes more water than all the showering, dish-washing and other indoor household water use of the state’s 39 million people.

The drought has been acute in California, where rainfall has dipped to record lows, reservoirs are depleted and state regulators have ordered conservation from cities, businesses and agriculture. Some communities have been given nine months to cut their use by 36 percent compared to 2013 levels.

Nevada’s Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, is hovering near its historic low water mark and residents in the Las Vegas area have limits on lawn watering. In Oakridge in western Oregon, a community well is 23 feet below normal and restrictions prevent residents from washing cars and filling swimming pools.

“We need to take care of people first — and food,” said William Clarke-Jessimy, 33, from Queens, New York, who thinks homes and agriculture should be favored for water rights.

He’s watched prices spike for California fresh fruits and vegetables in his local markets, and he worries about friends and family in the San Francisco area who are living with the scarcity of water, with no relief in sight.

“It’s really scary,” he said. “They need to find ways to deal with the drought on a long-term basis. I don’t think a lot of people realize how bad it really is.”

Earlier this month, the House passed Republican-backed legislation designed to bring more water to California’s farm belt. Republicans have blamed some cutbacks on environmental regulations designed to protect salmon and the threatened Delta smelt, a three-inch-long fish that is disappearing. California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has proposed spending $1.3 billion over a decade for reservoirs, desalination projects and water recycling.

According to the survey, Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to call water for agriculture a top priority, 81 percent to 74 percent, respectively. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to see water for wildlife and ecosystems as a top need, 61 percent to 49 percent.

There was little variation in regions around the nation in picking top priorities.

The poll also found most Americans — nearly 80 percent — think government should limit developers to building only in places with an adequate, long-term water supply.

The advocacy group Food & Water Watch has urged Gov. Jerry Brown to place a moratorium on groundwater use for irrigating crops in some parts of the heavily farmed San Joaquin Valley. California director Adam Scow said the poll’s findings reflect that people value food production but the group believes “we simply don’t have the water” to support crops in some drought stricken regions.

David Abbott has witnessed the toll in his hometown.

The resident of Winton, California, in the heart of the state’s Central Valley farm belt, has seen fields turn to dusty patches and farm workers end up jobless. Friends’ wells have gone dry.

In California, farmers have seen allocations of water from rivers and reservoirs slashed by government agencies in amounts greater than at any other time in California history, forcing many to tap depleted groundwater sources or buy it at high prices.

Abbott, 27, a part-time college business professor, places home use and the needs of agriculture on about equal footing. For his part, he’s watering less outdoors at home, has changed shower heads to conserve and waits to get a full load of dirty laundry before turning on the washing machine.

“I know it’s hard when we don’t have water,” said Abbott, who lives amid farms and almond orchards. “They say we are going to have a real wet winter, but I don’t think that’s going to be enough.”

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The AP-GfK Poll of 1,004 adults was conducted online July 9-13, 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.

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: 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