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Rising economic optimism vs. gas prices

at 02:05 PM ET, 03/15/2012

If not for rising gas prices, the economy might be an asset rather than a liability for President Obama’s reelection campaign.

After three-plus long years of gloomy economic news, Americans are starting to see light around the corner. Recent polling from the Washington Post-ABC News and Fox News shows slightly more Americans think that Obama has been good for the economy rather than bad.
President Obama speaks about energy Thursday at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

And about the only thing getting in the way is how much they are paying at the pump.

In the Post-ABC poll, 31 percent said Obama’s policies have made the economy better, compared to 30 percent who say he made it worse and 37 percent who say he’s had no effect.

Similarly, a just-released Fox poll (which didn’t offer the neutral opinion) shows 44 percent said Obama has made things better, while 42 percent say he’s made things worse.

In neither case is the margin statistically significant, but what’s really important here is how the numbers have changed over time.

In September, the Post-ABC poll showed just 17 percent thought Obama had made the economy better. In July, the Fox poll showed 34 percent said the same.

In both cases, those saying he improved things has jumped up double digits in recent months.

Much of the reason for this is the new economic optimism.

In the Fox poll, 58 percent of people said they have seen some signs of economic progress — more than double the number who said the same in November.

Similarly, the Post-ABC poll showed 49 percent of Americans think the economy has begun to recover, up from 36 percent in November.

That’s a little higher bar than the Fox poll — just because you see some signs of economic progress doesn’t mean you think the economy overall is progressing — but both polls demonstrate that people are starting to believe that the economy is coming back.

Which is exactly why Republicans have latched on to gas prices as their silver bullet.

It’s the one major economic indicator right now that is heading in the wrong direction, tempering whatever optimism people might be feeling about the economy.

The Fox poll show just 26 percent of people approve of Obama’s handling of gas prices (the same as the Post-ABC poll showed), compared to 42 percent who approve of his handling of the economy and 47 percent who approve of his overall performance.

And if it weren’t for the first number being so low, the other two numbers would likely be higher, at which point Obama might be a favorite for reelection.

 
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