WASHINGTON (AP) -- For the first time in years, more Americans than not say the country is headed in the right direction, a sign that Barack Obama has used the first 100 days of his presidency to lift the public's mood and inspire hopes for a brighter future.
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 an Associated Press-GfK poll. It shows most Americans consider their new president to be a strong, ethical and empathetic leader who is working to change Washington.
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 political realities of two wars, a global economic meltdown and countless domestic challenges.
"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."
Other AP-GfK findings could signal trouble for Obama as he approaches his 100th day in office, April 29:
-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, the percentage of Americans saying the country is headed in the right direction rose to 48 percent, up from 40 percent in February. Forty-four percent say the nation is on the wrong track.
Not since January 2004, shortly after the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, has an AP survey found more "right direction" than "wrong direction" respondents. The burst of optimism didn't last long in 2004.
And it doesn't happen much.
Other than that blip five years ago, pessimism has trumped optimism in media polls since shortly after the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003.
The "right track" number topped "wrong direction" for a few months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to non-AP media polls, and for several months late in the Clinton administration.
So far, Obama has defied the odds by producing a sustained trend toward optimism. It began with his election.
In October 2008, just 17 percent said the country was headed in the right direction. After his victory, that jumped to 36 percent. It dipped a bit in December but returned to 35 percent around the time of his inauguration and has headed upward since.
Obama is keenly aware that his political prospects are directly linked to such numbers. If at the end of his term the public is no more assured that Washington is competent and accountable and that the nation is at least on the right track, his re-election prospects will be doubtful.
Obama himself has conceded as much.
"I will be held accountable," he said a few weeks into his presidency. "You know, I've got four years. ... If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition."
The AP-GfK poll suggests that 64 percent of the public approves of Obama's job performance, down just 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.
But Obama has become a polarizing figure, with just 24 percent of Republicans approving of his performance - down from 33 percent in February. Obama campaigned on a promise to end the party-first mind-set that breeds gridlock in Washington.
Most Americans say it's too soon to tell whether he's delivered on his promise to change Washington. But twice as many say Obama is living up to his promises as those who say he's not (30 percent to 15 percent).
Worries about losing their jobs, facing major medical expenses, seeing investments dive and paying their bills remain high among Americans, the poll shows, just slightly lower than two months ago.
Still, 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 and cares about "people like you."
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 than ordinary Americans.
A majority of Americans believe the Obama administration is following higher ethical standards than the Bush administration.
Most also say he's changing things about the right amount and at the right speed. But nearly a third say he's trying to change too many things too quickly.
Obama is not the first president who sought to tap the deep well of American optimism - the never-say-die spirit that Americans like to see in themselves.
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.
In the malaise following Jimmy Carter's presidency, Ronald Reagan reminded people that America has always seen itself as a "shining city upon a hill," as one of its earliest leaders, John Winthrop, put it.
Obama started his presidency on a dour note, describing the U.S. economy in nearly apocalyptic terms for weeks 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."
Of those who say the country is on the right track in the AP-GfK poll, 73 percent are Democrats, 17 percent are independents and 10 percent are Republicans.
"When Obama came in," said D.T. Brown, 39, a Mount Vernon, Ill., radio show host who voted against Obama, "it was just a breath of fresh air."
Others said their newfound optimism had 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," said Dwight Hageman, 66, a retired welder from Newberg, Ore., who voted against Obama.
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 is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.