WASHINGTON — Americans are increasingly optimistic about the economy, but they're feeling strained by rising gasoline prices, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll.
A slim plurality believes the worst of the nation's economic woes are over, more than a third expect their personal family finances to get better over the next year — the highest rate since June 2010 — and the number of Americans who believe the U.S. is now in a recession is at its lowest point since Marist began tracking the question in May 2008.
"Most of the indicators show a slow but clearly growing sense of optimism," said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll.
But, he added, the spike in gas prices threatens to derail some of the gains.
More than three out of four surveyed — 77 percent — said that the higher cost of gasoline had put at least a "moderate amount" of strain on their family budget. Thirty-seven percent said the costs had put a "great deal" of strain on family finances. And more than half — 53 percent — said that they had changed their driving habits as a result.
Miringoff noted that the numbers are reflected in the current political battle, with Republicans looking to blame President Barack Obama for the soaring cost of energy. Obama, whose political fortunes could be threatened by the prices at the pump, launched a two-day, four-state tour last week to tout his energy policy in the face of the GOP attacks.
"You can tell from the campaign back and forth what people are telling them," Miringoff said. "This is what the campaigns are seeing in their numbers."
But the poll suggests the discontent isn't as steep as it was in April 2008, when gas prices jumped to a then high of $3.50 a gallon. The Marist poll at the time found that 82 percent of respondents said that gas prices were putting at least a moderate strain on their finances.
"Clearly it's a financial hardship for a lot of people, but the picture isn't as bleak," Miringoff said. "They feel less strapped than four years ago. Not good, but not as bad."
That's reflected in the drop in pessimism over the U.S. economy. Forty-nine percent believe the worst is behind when it comes to the U.S. economy, while 45 percent believe the worst is yet to come. But that's the lowest number since January 2011, when just 39 percent believed the worst was yet to come.
"For the plurality, the glass is now half full; it's been half empty for a long time," Miringoff said.
At the same time, however, 66 percent of adults believe the U.S. is still in a recession. Analysts have said the recession officially ended in June 2009, but the poll shows Americans aren't fully convinced.
"It's all pointing in the right direction, but it's not very convincing at this point," Miringoff said.
This survey of 1,080 adults was conducted last Tuesday through Thursday. Adults who live in the continental United States were interviewed by telephone. Telephone numbers were selected based on a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the nation. The exchanges were elected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. To increase coverage, this land-line sample was supplemented by respondents reached through random dialing of cellphone numbers. The two samples were then combined. Results are statistically significant within 3.0 percentage points. There were 846 registered voters. The results for this subset are statistically significant within 3.5 percentage points.
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