WASHINGTON - Americans are growing more pessimistic about the economy and handling it remains President Barack Obama's weak spot and biggest challenge in his bid for a second term, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.
And the gloomier outlook extends across party lines, including a steep decline in the share of Democrats who call the economy "good," down from 48 percent in February to just 31 percent now.
Almost two-thirds of Americans - 65 percent - disapprove of Obama's handling of gas prices, up from 58 percent in February. Nearly half, 44 percent, "strongly disapprove." And just 30 percent said they approve, down from 39 percent in February.
These findings come despite a steady decline in gas prices in recent weeks after a surge earlier in the year. The national average for a gallon of gasoline stood at $3.75, down from a 2012 peak of $3.94 on April 1.
U.S. presidents have limited ability to affect gas prices, which are determined in international markets. However, the party out of power always blames whoever is president at the time for high gas prices, as Republican Mitt Romney is doing now and as Democrat Obama did in 2008 when George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office.
Of all the issues covered by the poll, Obama's ratings on gas prices were his worst.
The public's views tilt negative on his handling of the overall economy, 52 percent disapprove while 46 percent approve. In February, Americans were about evenly divided on his handling of the issue.
The economy is the No. 1 issue in the presidential race, thanks to the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression and one of the shallowest-ever recoveries.
While the recession officially ended in summer 2009, unemployment remains stubbornly high, at 8.1 percent in April. Some 12.5 million Americans are out of work.
The increasing skepticism toward the recovery tracks a weakening overall economy as measured by the gross domestic product, and matches economic growth downgrades by many economic forecasters.
Against this background, the weak economy looms as a huge liability for Obama, and any drop in public confidence in his ability to deal with it can threaten his re-election prospects. Although Obama held broad advantages over Romney on handling social issues and protecting the country, when it came to the economy about the same percentage said they trust Romney to handle it as trust Obama.
Mindful of Obama's vulnerability, Romney focuses frequently on the economy, suggesting that his business background makes him the candidate who can create jobs. Like most Republicans, he blames Obama's policies for making the economy worse.
Obama acknowledges that times remain hard for many, but says conditions are slowly improving. He suggests the best chance for full recovery is if voters stick with him.
Heather Beckman, 29, of Lantana, Fla., is a Democrat who said she's undecided about her vote but leaned to Obama. She believes the president can put the economy back on track, but not by himself. "At some point, the Republicans and Democrats have to come together to turn the economy around. As well as the rest of the country."
However, Republican Roni Lovell, 68, of Edgewood, Wash., said Romney's the one to help the economy turn the corner. "He has helped some really big companies come out of their financial woes," said the retired school administrator. "Obama has proved he can't do it and it's time someone else gives it a try."
The poll shows that optimism on an economic recovery earlier this year has all but stalled. The share of Americans describing the economy as "good" dropped 10 points since February, to 20 percent. Two-thirds see the economy as "poor" and about one in seven say it's somewhere in between. And just 22 percent say the economy got better in the past month, down from 28 percent saying so in February.
Democrats remain more optimistic about the economy in the coming year than do independents and Republicans, but still, the percentage that is hopeful for improvement in the next year dipped 10 points since February.
Fewer than one in three expect their household's economic fortunes to improve in the coming year, down from 37 percent in February. Eighteen percent see their finances as worsening, up from 11 percent in February.
And 35 percent expect the unemployment rate, which has been inching down for months, to start going back up. Thirty percent thought that in February. Independents are closer to Republicans than Democrats on that issue, with only 18 percent of independents and Republicans optimistic that the jobless rate will improve, while 40 percent of Democrats expect it to.
For now, Obama's approval rating stands at 53 percent. But a stalling recovery could cause it to slide.
The AP-GfK poll was conducted May 3-7 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,004 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
Associated Press writer Stacy A. Anderson and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed this report.