By TOM RAUM and JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

 WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans are growing more pessimistic about the economy and handling it remains President Barack Obama’s weak spot and biggest challenge in his bid for a second term, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

And the gloomier outlook extends across party lines, including a steep decline in the share of Democrats who call the economy “good,” down from 48 percent in February to just 31 percent now.

Almost two-thirds of Americans — 65 percent — disapprove of Obama’s handling of gas prices, up from 58 percent in February. Nearly half, 44 percent, “strongly disapprove.” And just 30 percent said they approve, down from 39 percent in February.

These findings come despite a steady decline in gas prices in recent weeks after a surge earlier in the year. The national average for a gallon of gasoline stood at $3.75, down from a 2012 peak of $3.94 on April 1.

U.S. presidents have limited ability to affect gas prices, which are determined in international markets. However, the party out of power always blames whoever is president at the time for high gas prices, as Republican Mitt Romney is doing now and as Democrat Obama did in 2008 when George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office.

Of all the issues covered by the poll, Obama’s ratings on gas prices were his worst.

The public’s views tilt negative on his handling of the overall economy, 52 percent disapprove while 46 percent approve. In February, Americans were about evenly divided on his handling of the issue.

The economy is the No. 1 issue in the presidential race, thanks to the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression and one of the shallowest-ever recoveries.

While the recession officially ended in summer 2009, unemployment remains stubbornly high, at 8.1 percent in April. Some 12.5 million Americans are out of work.

The increasing skepticism toward the recovery tracks a weakening overall economy as measured by the gross domestic product, and matches economic growth downgrades by many economic forecasters.

Against this background, the weak economy looms as a huge liability for Obama, and any drop in public confidence in his ability to deal with it can threaten his re-election prospects. Although Obama held broad advantages over Romney on handling social issues and protecting the country, when it came to the economy about the same percentage said they trust Romney to handle it as trust Obama.

Mindful of Obama’s vulnerability, Romney focuses frequently on the economy, suggesting that his business background makes him the candidate who can create jobs. Like most Republicans, he blames Obama’s policies for making the economy worse.

Obama acknowledges that times remain hard for many, but says conditions are slowly improving. He suggests the best chance for full recovery is if voters stick with him.

Heather Beckman, 29, of Lantana, Fla., is a Democrat who said she’s undecided about her vote but leaned to Obama. She believes the president can put the economy back on track, but not by himself. “At some point, the Republicans and Democrats have to come together to turn the economy around. As well as the rest of the country.”

However, Republican Roni Lovell, 68, of Edgewood, Wash., said Romney’s the one to help the economy turn the corner. “He has helped some really big companies come out of their financial woes,” said the retired school administrator. “Obama has proved he can’t do it and it’s time someone else gives it a try.”

The poll shows that optimism on an economic recovery earlier this year has all but stalled. The share of Americans describing the economy as “good” dropped 10 points since February, to 20 percent. Two-thirds see the economy as “poor” and about one in seven say it’s somewhere in between. And just 22 percent say the economy got better in the past month, down from 28 percent saying so in February.

Democrats remain more optimistic about the economy in the coming year than do independents and Republicans, but still, the percentage that is hopeful for improvement in the next year dipped 10 points since February.

Fewer than one in three expect their household’s economic fortunes to improve in the coming year, down from 37 percent in February. Eighteen percent see their finances as worsening, up from 11 percent in February.

And 35 percent expect the unemployment rate, which has been inching down for months, to start going back up. Thirty percent thought that in February. Independents are closer to Republicans than Democrats on that issue, with only 18 percent of independents and Republicans optimistic that the jobless rate will improve, while 40 percent of Democrats expect it to.

For now, Obama remains popular. His approval rating stands at 53 percent. But a stalling recovery could cause it to slide.

The AP-GfK poll was conducted May 3-7 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,004 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.

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

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Online: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

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Follow Tom Raum and Jennifer Agiesta on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/tomraum and http://www.twitter.com/jennagiesta

 How the poll was conducted

 By The Associated Press

 The Associated Press-GfK Poll on President Barack Obama and the economy was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from May 3-7. It is based on landline and cellphone telephone interviews with a nationally representative random sample of 1,004 adults. Interviews were conducted with 703 respondents on landline telephones and 301 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 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.

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 shows divide over increasing money for transit

WASHINGTON (AP) — A slight majority of Americans prefer living in a single-family house in the suburbs or a rural area with more land, even if it means driving long distances to get to work or run errands, according to a poll by The Associated Press-GfK.

However, a significant minority, 44 percent, would choose an apartment or smaller house in an urban area that comes with a short drive to work or the opportunity to use public transportation, bike or walk. The split also has a political aspect: Sixty-seven percent of Republicans and 53 percent of independents prefer suburban or rural living, while 55 percent of Democrats prefer urban areas.

The share of Americans who prefer suburban or rural living — 53 percent — is identical to the share who say the government should increase spending to build and improve roads, bridges and interstate highways. About 1 in 3 think current spending levels are about right, while just over 1 in 10 would like to see less money spent on roads.

Many states are struggling just to maintain current spending levels, and Congress has been unable to come up with a long-term plan to pay for highway aid that closes the gap between current spending and federal gas tax revenue.

Americans are more divided over building and improving public transportation such as rail and bus systems. Four in 10 say spending on public transportation should be increased, but just as many say current spending is about right. Only 18 percent say transit spending should be cut.

Contrary to the widely held notion that the millennial generation is flocking to cities and giving up their cars, younger people are not significantly more or less likely than older people to prefer urban living with a shorter commute and access to public transit, the poll found.

Matthew Wild, 33, an airline pilot living in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, said he favors increasing spending on both public transit and highways. The region’s freeways “take a real beating” from the traffic and need to be maintained, he said, but no new lanes should be added.

“We definitely don’t need to be expanding freeways anymore,” Wild said. “We’ve maxed out.”

He cited a highway near his home that was recently widened and now is as full as ever. He does, however, strongly support building more light rail transit locally and high-speed rail between California cities.

Wild said he’d much rather take a convenient local train than fight traffic in his car. He currently takes trains only a few times a year because there are no direct routes from where he lives to the places he wants to go, and indirect routes take too long, he said.

“The big problem with L.A. is that, given the lack of public transportation, sitting in traffic in your own car is still faster than taking public transit,” Wild said.

Jane McEntire, 62, who lives in Cartersville, Georgia, on the northwest fringe of the Atlanta metropolitan area, says traffic is horrible and getting worse.

Even so, she’d rather keep spending on roads and cut spending on public transportation. She says she’s lost confidence in the ability of state and local transportation officials to make improvements and not fritter money away on wasteful projects.

She is particularly incensed that officials used federal transit aid to build a slow-moving streetcar line in downtown Atlanta that is used primarily by tourists.

“I think they look really cute, but as far as usefulness — no,” she said. “When you have federal dollars that are coming into a state that are available and you spend it on these cars in Atlanta that go six or eight blocks back and forth … Why didn’t they take that money and spend it on something to help commuters?”

The AP-GfK Poll of 1,077 adults was conducted online from April 23 to 27 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

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Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy


AP-GfK Poll: Many approve Iran deal; Most don’t trust Tehran
WASHINGTON (AP) — Many Americans like the idea of the preliminary deal that would limit Iran’s nuclear program but very few people really believe Tehran will follow through with the agreement.

An Associated Press-GfK poll finds that just 3 percent said they were very confident that Iran would allow inspections of its nuclear facilities, remove plutonium from the country and shut down close to half of its uranium-enriching centrifuges as the preliminary deal says would be required. Nearly seven in 10 people said they were not confident, while 25 percent said they were only moderately confident.

The U.S., Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China are aiming to finalize a deal with Iran by June 30 that puts limits on Iranian programs that could be used to make nuclear arms. In exchange, economic sanctions on Iran would be lifted over time. Tehran denies any interest in such weapons but is negotiating in hopes of relief from billions of dollars in economic sanctions.

The next round of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers will start Tuesday in Vienna.

Although more than half of Americans polled say they approve of making the deal, few people — 16 percent — are actually paying close attention to the complex Iran negotiations that have angered Israel and unnerved Gulf nations who are concerned about Tehran’s rising influence and aggressive behavior in the region.

The Senate last week passed legislation that would give Congress time to vote to reject any deal before sanctions are lifted. President Barack Obama would retain the right to veto lawmakers’ disapproval.

Israel’s strong objections to the deal could make a difference to many Americans. If forced to choose, a majority say it’s more important to maintain the U.S. relationship with Israel than to strike a deal with Iran. But respondents are divided along party lines, with nearly six in 10 Democrats saying the Iran deal is more important while seven in 10 Republicans believe ties with Israel are more critical.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of the harshest critics of the deal with Iran. Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat, citing hostile Iranian rhetoric toward the Jewish state, Iran’s missile capabilities and its support for violent militant groups.

More broadly, the poll found that Americans are increasingly interested in the U.S. role in world affairs, with 60 percent saying it’s an extremely important issue, up from 52 percent less than five months ago. Slightly more people also approve of Obama’s handling of the issue, increasing from 38 percent in December to 42 percent in the latest poll. Fifty-seven percent disapprove of Obama’s handling of the issue.

But overall, Americans are more likely to trust Republicans than Democrats to handle protecting the country.

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The AP-GfK Poll of 1,077 adults was conducted online April 23-27, 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