For the first time in years, more Americans than not say the country is headed in the right direction, a sign that Barack Obama has used the first 100 days of his presidency to lift the public's mood and inspire hopes for a brighter future.
Intensely worried about their personal finances and medical expenses, Americans nonetheless appear realistic about the time Obama might need to turn things around, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. It showed most Americans consider their new president to be a strong, ethical and empathetic leader who is working to change Washington.
"He presents a very positive outlook," said Cheryl Wetherington, 35, an independent voter who runs a chocolate shop in Gardner, Kansas. "He's very well-spoken and very vocal about what direction should be taken."
Some trouble signals
But, other AP-GfK findings could signal trouble for Obama as he approaches his 100th day in office, April 29. While there is evidence that people feel more optimistic about the economy, 65 percent said it's difficult for them and their families to get ahead. More than one-third know of a family member who recently lost a job. And more than 90 percent of Americans consider the economy an important issue, the highest ever in AP polling. Nearly 80 percent believe that the rising federal debt will hurt future generations, and Obama is getting mixed reviews at best for his handling of the issue. And yet, the percentage of Americans saying the country is headed in the right direction rose to 48 percent, up from 40 percent in February. Forty-four percent say the nation is on the wrong track.
Not since January 2004, shortly after the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, has an AP survey found more "right direction" than "wrong direction" respondents. The burst of optimism didn't last long in 2004. And it doesn't happen much.
Other than that blip five years ago, pessimism has trumped optimism in media polls since shortly after the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003.
The "right track" topped "wrong direction" for a few months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to non-AP media polls, and for several months late in the Clinton administration. So far, Obama has defied the odds by producing a sustained trend toward optimism. It began with his election.
The AP-GfK poll suggested that 64 percent of the public approves of Obama's job performance, down just slightly from 67 percent in February. President George W. Bush's approval ratings hovered in the high 50s after his first 100 days in office. Most Americans asid it's too soon to tell whether he's delivered on his promise to change Washington. But twice as many say Obama is living up to his promises as those who say he's not (30 percent to 15 percent).
Worries about losing their jobs, facing major medical expenses, seeing investments dive and paying their bills remain high among Americans, the poll showed, just slightly lower than two months ago.