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.

Kayla Mueller’s brother: Swap with Taliban raised IS demands

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — The brother of an American woman who was killed after spending months as a hostage of Islamic State militants says Kayla Mueller’s situation worsened after the government traded five Taliban commanders for a captive U.S. soldier.

The militants increased their demands after the May swap for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Eric Mueller told NBC’s “Today” in an interview that aired Monday.

“That made the whole situation worse because that’s when the demands got greater,” he said. “They got larger. They realized that they had something.”

Mueller’s death was confirmed Feb. 10 by her family and U.S. officials. The Islamic State group claimed she died in a Jordanian airstrike, but U.S. officials have not confirmed that. The Pentagon said it didn’t know how she was killed.

The 26-year-old international aid worker, who grew up in Prescott, Arizona, was captured in August 2013 after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo, Syria.

Mueller’s brother and parents spoke to “Today” host Savannah Guthrie. The family has declined repeated requests for an interview with The Associated Press.

Mueller’s father, Carl Mueller, said that the United States’ willingness to swap for Bergdahl but not pay ransom or allow ransom to be paid for his daughter “was pretty hard to take.”

“I actually asked the president that question when we were in the White House,” he said without elaborating.

Mueller’s parents said in the interview that the U.S. government put policy ahead of American lives.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that the Mueller family had been put in a difficult position by the U.S. policy against making concessions to terrorists, but he defended it as being in the best interests of the nation.

“The president is confident that his administration did do everything that was possible within the confines of that policy — using our military might, using our intelligence capability, using our diplomatic influence — to try to secure the safe release and return of Kayla Mueller,” Earnest said.

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that only 3 in 10 Americans think the United States should pay a ransom to save an American hostage overseas, even if it’s the only way to rescue the hostage. A quarter of Americans say there are circumstances when the United States should directly negotiate with a terrorist group.

The poll of 1,045 adults was conducted online Jan. 29-Feb. 2. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The Obama administration has defended the Bergdahl swap. Some U.S. lawmakers were outraged by the exchange of five Taliban commanders held at the Guantanamo Bay prison for the Idaho native who left his post in Afghanistan and was captured and held by the Taliban for five years.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously supported the exchange, insisting that the United States has a sacred commitment to men and women who serve that it never will leave anyone behind on the battlefield.


AP-GfK Poll: Most back Obama plan to raise investment taxes

WASHINGTON (AP) — The rich aren’t taxed enough and the middle class is taxed too much. As for your taxes, you probably think they’re too high as well.

Those are the results of an Associated Press-GfK poll that found that most people in the United States support President Barack Obama’s proposal to raise investment taxes on high-income families.

The findings echo the populist messages of two liberal senators — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — being courted by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to run for president in 2016. The results also add weight to Obama’s new push to raise taxes on the rich and use some of the revenue to lower taxes on the middle class.

Obama calls his approach “middle-class economics.”

It’s not flying with Republicans in Congress, who oppose higher taxes.

But Bob Montgomery of Martinsville, Virginia, said people with higher incomes should pay more.

“I think the more you make the more taxes you should pay,” said Montgomery, who is retired after working 40 years at an auto dealership. “I can’t see where a man makes $50,000 a year pays as much taxes as somebody that makes $300,000 a year.”

According to the poll, 68 percent of those questioned said wealthy households pay too little in federal taxes; only 11 percent said the wealthy pay too much.

Also, 60 percent said middle-class households pay too much in federal taxes, while 7 percent said they paid too little.

Obama laid out a series of tax proposals as part of his 2016 budget released this month. Few are likely to win approval in the Republican-controlled Congress. But if fellow Democrats were to embrace his ideas, they could play a role in the 2016 race.

One proposal would increase capital gains taxes on households making more than $500,000. In the survey, 56 percent favored the proposal, while only 16 percent opposed it.

Democrats, at 71 percent, were the most likely to support raising taxes on capital gains. Among Republicans and independents, 46 percent supported it.

Obama’s other tax plans didn’t fare as well.

About 27 percent said they favored making estates pay capital gains taxes on assets when they are inherited, and 36 percent opposed it.

Just 19 percent said they supported the president’s aborted plan to scale back the tax benefits of popular college savings plans, 529 accounts, named after a section in federal tax law. Obama withdrew the proposal after Republicans and some Democrats in Congress opposed it.

“I think that’s a poor idea,” said Jamie Starr of suburban Atlanta. “Being that I’m a mother of five children, that is a wonderful program.”

“That’s kids trying to make their own away in this world without having student loans,” she said.

Obama’s proposal to levy a new tax on banks was supported by 47 percent of those surveyed. Only 13 percent opposed it, while 36 percent were undecided.

It’s tax season, that time of the year when people are confronted by their obligations to the government. The poll found that 56 percent of us think our own federal taxes are too high, and 4 percent said they pay too little.

If taxes are increased, a slight majority said the additional money should help pay down the national debt. Using the money to cut other taxes or fund government programs were less popular options.

Republicans, in general, are more likely than Democrats to oppose higher taxes, except when it comes to low-income families.

Only 19 percent of respondents said low-income families pay too little in federal taxes, but there was a significant split between the political parties. Just 10 percent of Democrats said low-income families pay too little, while 33 percent of Republicans said they don’t pay enough.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the poorest 20 percent of households paid less than 1 percent of all federal taxes in 2011, the latest year for data. The top 10 percent paid more than half of all federal taxes.

That’s OK, said Sen. Sanders, an independent from Vermont, because wealthy people have seen their incomes soar while the rest of the country’s wages have been much more flat.

“Most people understand that at a time when the rich are becoming much richer, the middle class is continuing to disappear,” Sanders said. “And people also understand that the very wealthy and large corporations are able to take advantage of huge loopholes, which enable them not to pay their fair share of taxes.”

Obama has been pushing to raise taxes on the rich since his first campaign for president in 2008. He has had some success. In January 2013, Obama persuaded Republicans in Congress to let income tax rates go up for families making more than $450,000 a year. It was part of a deal that made permanent a large package of tax cuts first enacted under Republican President George W. Bush.

Some liberals are looking for a candidate to push for higher taxes on the rich in the 2016 race. Sanders and Democrat Warren would fit the profile, though Warren says she is not running for president and Sanders says he has not made up his mind.

Among Democrats, Hillary Rodham Clinton is seen as the front-runner for the nomination; she has yet to make her candidacy official.

Clinton hasn’t offered specifics on how she would approach taxes as a candidate. But she offered a glimpse of her views following Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, when she tweeted that Obama “pointed way to an economy that works for all. Now we need to step up & deliver for the middle class. #FairShot #FairShare.”

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The AP-GfK Poll of 1,045 adults was conducted online Jan. 29-Feb. 2, 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 3.5 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

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Follow Stephen Ohlemacher on Twitter: http://twitter.com/stephenatap