WASHINGTON -- Millions of people jobless. Billions of dollars in bailouts. Trillions of dollars in U.S. debt. And yet, for the first time in years, more Americans than not say the country is on the right track.
In a sign that President Obama has inspired hopes for a brighter future in the first 100 days of his presidency, an Associated Press-GfK poll shows that 48 percent of Americans believe the United States is headed in the right direction -- compared with 44 percent who disagree.
The "right direction" number is up 8 points since February and a remarkable 31 points since October, the month before Obama's election.
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 the AP-GfK poll. It shows, as Obama approaches his 100th day in office next Wednesday, most people 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, Kan. "He's very well-spoken and very vocal about what direction should be taken."
Nobody knows how long the honeymoon will last, but Obama has clearly transformed the yes-we-can spirit of his candidacy into a tool of governance. His ability to inspire confidence -- Obama's second book is titled "The Audacity of Hope" -- has thus far buffered the president against the harsh realities of two wars, a global economic meltdown and countless domestic challenges.
Even if they don't always like what he's doing, Americans seem content for now that the president is taking action to correct the nation's course. He's doing something, anything, and that's better than nothing.
"Some steps have been taken, and I can't say that they're the right ones, but steps have been taken," said Dwight Hageman, 66, a retired welder from Newberg, Ore., who voted against Obama.
Other AP-GfK findings could signal trouble for 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 Obama is getting mixed reviews at best for his handling of the issue.
And yet, this is the first time since January 2004 than an AP survey found more "right direction" than "wrong direction" respondents. That fleeting 2004 burst of optimism came shortly after the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
In recent years, the U.S. public has tended to be more pessimistic than optimistic about the nation's future. The exceptions lasted just a few months: the start of the Iraq war, the Sept. 11 attacks and late in the Clinton administration.
Obama is not the first president who has sought to shape the nation's psychology, tapping the deep well of American optimism to effect policy and politics.
Even as he briefly closed the nation's banks, Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke in the first days of his presidency of the "confidence and courage" needed to fix the U.S. economy. "Together we cannot fail," he declared. Ronald Reagan reminded people that America has always seen itself as a "shining city upon a hill."
Obama started his presidency on a somber note, describing the U.S. economy in nearly apocalyptic terms as he pushed his $787 billion stimulus plan through Congress.
He turned the page in late February, telling a joint session of Congress and a television audience of millions: "We will rebuild. We will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before."
For some people, including a minority of Republicans, the message has struck a chord. Others say their newfound optimism has nothing to do with Obama, but rather with an era of personal responsibility they believe has come with the economic meltdown.
"I think people are beginning to turn in that direction and realize that there's not always going to be somebody to catch them when things fall down," Hageman said.
The AP-GfK poll suggests that 64 percent of the public approves of Obama's job performance, down 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 say Obama is changing things at about the right speed. But nearly a third say he's trying to change too many things too quickly.
Seven in 10 Americans say it is reasonable to expect it to take longer than a year to see the results of Obama's economic policies.
Just as many people say Obama understands the concerns of ordinary Americans. That's a sharp contrast to Bush, who won re-election in 2004 despite the fact that 54 percent of voters on that Election Day said he cared more about large corporations.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted April 16-20 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media. It involved telephone interviews on landline and cell phones with 1,000 adults nationwide. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Associated Press News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and AP writer Christine Simmons contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Poll site: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com