Disapproval of President Barack Obama's handling of the economy is heading higher -- alongside gasoline prices -- as a record number of Americans now give the president "strongly" negative reviews on the 2012 presidential campaign's most important issue, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Increasingly pessimistic views of Obama's performance on the economy come despite a steadily brightening employment picture and other signs of economic improvement, and highlight the political sensitivity of rising gas prices.
The potential political consequences are clear, with the rising public disapproval reversing some of the president's gains in hypothetical general-election matchups against possible Republican rivals for the White House. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., now both run about evenly with Obama. The findings come just five weeks after Obama appeared to be getting a boost from the improving economy.
Gas prices are a main culprit: Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they disapprove of the way the president is handling the situation at the pump, where rising prices have already hit hard. Just 26 percent approve of his work on the issue, his lowest rating in the poll. Most Americans say higher prices are already taking a toll on family finances.
Friday's employment report showed a gain of 227,000 jobs in the past month, continuing an upward trend and offering the White House something positive to point to. Still, the survey -- conducted Wednesday through Saturday -- finds 59 percent of Americans giving Obama negative ratings on the economy, up from early last month. Now, 50 percent give him intensely low marks, the most yet in a Post-ABC News poll, and a jump of 9 percentage points.
For Obama, not all signs are negative when it comes to the economy. As many now see reason for economic optimism as pessimism, and two-thirds are bullish on their own prospects. Nearly half say they sense that an economic recovery is under way, up significantly from early fall.
More significantly, perhaps, as many say the president's economic program is making things better as say it is making things worse, a clear shift over the past six months. The telephone poll was conducted among a random national sample of 1,003 adults. Results of the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.