AP Poll: More Americans Upbeat Than Not

President Barack Obama walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington as he returns from a trip to Iowa, April 22, 2009.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
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 Mr. Obama might need to turn things around, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. It shows most Americans consider their new president to be a strong, ethical and empathetic leader who is working to change Washington.

Nobody knows how long the honeymoon will last, but Mr. Obama has clearly transformed the yes-we-can spirit of his candidacy into a tool of governance. His ability to inspire confidence - Mr. Obama's second book is titled "The Audacity of Hope" - has thus far buffered the president against the harsh political realities of two wars, a global economic meltdown and countless domestic challenges.

"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."

Other AP-GfK findings could signal trouble for Mr. Obama:

  • 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.
  • 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 Mr. 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" number 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, Mr. Obama has defied the odds by producing a sustained trend toward optimism. It began with his election.

    In October 2008, just 17 percent said the country was headed in the right direction. After his victory, that jumped to 36 percent. It dipped a bit in December but returned to 35 percent around the time of his inauguration and has headed upward since.

    As President Obama concluded his trip to Europe earlier this month, a CBS News/New York Times poll found that Americans were more positive about the respect accorded to a U.S. president than they had been in years.

    Sixty-seven percent said world leaders respected Mr. Obama, while 18 percent say they did not. It was a sharp contrast to the response when the same question was asked about George W. Bush in July 2006: Just 30 percent then said the president is respected by the leaders of other countries.

    Mr. Obama is keenly aware that his political prospects are directly linked to such numbers. If at the end of his term the public is no more assured that Washington is competent and accountable and that the nation is at least on the right track, his re-election prospects will be doubtful.

    Mr. Obama himself has conceded as much.