By Sarah Dutton, Jennifer De Pinto, Anthony Salvanto, and Fred Backus
As President Obama prepares to update the nation and an unpopular Congress at tonight's State of the Union address, a new CBS News poll shows that 52 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing as president, while 38 percent disapprove. President Obama's approval rating is similar to what it was last month.
Fewer than half (45 percent) approve of the president's handling of the economy (the nation's top problem) and 53 percent say he doesn't have a clear plan for solving the nation's problems.
The percentage that thinks the country is headed in the right direction has risen about 10 percentage points since last summer to 40 percent today, and it is far higher than it was four years ago. Still, a majority of Americans - 54 percent - think the country is off on the wrong track.
The president enjoys particularly strong support for his handling of terrorism (though a majority of Republicans disapprove), and more Americans approve than disapprove of his handling of the war in Afghanistan (50-33 percent), foreign policy (48-31 percent), energy policy (47-34 percent), and immigration (46-41 percent).
But slightly more Americans disapprove than approve of his handling of the economy (49 percent disapprove, 45 percent approve) and gun policy, and most disapprove of his handling of the federal budget deficit (55 percent disapprove, 37 percent approve).
Looking ahead, a slight majority of Americans don't think the president has a clear plan for solving the nation's problems (53 percent). Less than half (45 percent) think he shares the same priorities for the country as they do.
And while two-thirds of Americans think Barack Obama cares at least somewhat about people like them, just 38 percent think he cares a lot - far less than the 53 percent who said so four years ago at the start of his first term.
Still, the percentage that has a favorable opinion of Mr. Obama has reached 50 percent for the first time since July 2009, while just 34 percent view him unfavorably. Views of Vice President Joe Biden are more mixed (32 percent favorable, 31 percent unfavorable, 36 percent undecided/don't know), while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is viewed favorably by 57 percent of Americans.
The economy and jobs continues to be the top concern for Americans, as it has been for the past five years, far outdistancing any other issue. While most still say the economy is in bad shape, positive evaluations of the economy have risen since last year.
Immigration and gun policy may be dominating much of the political discussion these days, but 40 percent of Americans volunteer the economy and jobs as the most important problem facing the country, far ahead of any other issue. The economy has topped the list since January 2008.
Overall perceptions of the nation's economy remain negative, but they have improved. Thirty-two percent now say the nation's economy is good, up from 23 percent a year ago and significantly higher than it was in February 2009. Back then, a mere 5 percent rated the economy as good - the lowest percentage ever recorded in a CBS News Poll.
Thirty-two percent of Americans think the economy is getting better while 28 percent say it is getting worse.
Yet, most say jobs are difficult to find in their community and 45 percent don't think the jobs lost in their area will ever come back. Forty-one percent believe they will.
Trust, Role of Government
In assessing the role of government, a majority of Americans (58 percent) continues to say that in general government is doing too much that should be left to individuals. Thirty-five percent say the government should be doing more than it is to solve problems.
In November's CBS News Exit Polls, a majority of voters in 2012 agreed, even as they re-elected Mr. Obama.
Democrats, perhaps unsurprisingly, favor the government doing more (55 percent) while Republicans in principle oppose the notion, with 85 percent saying it is doing too much. A majority of all age groups in this poll - including people under 30 (55 percent) and those over 65 (57 percent) - say the government is doing too much; though younger people, who tend to be more liberal, are comparatively a little less likely to say so.
As a new term begins for Congress and the president, just 20 percent of Americans feel they can trust the government to "do what is right" most or all of the time. This measure has historically been low since the 1970s, when this poll began asking the question.
But today that number has bounced back from the all-time low that it hit in the fall of 2011 (10 percent), which came after the downgrade of the country's credit and the budget battles. It is now back around where it has been for the last few years.
Respondents who say they don't usually trust the government were asked what they distrusted the most. The answers, in their own words, described what they saw as an insular and ineffective Washington, seemingly more concerned with partisanship and infighting instead of the average person. Seventeen percent mentioned partisanship and paralysis; another 15 percent said Washington prioritized special interests over the common people; another 15 percent volunteered they thought politicians pandered or didn't tell the truth. Another 11 percent noted the amount of money in the system as a source of mistrust.
For full poll results, see next page
This poll was conducted by telephone from February 6-10, 2013 among 1,148 adults nationwide. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. The error for subgroups may be higher. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.