The public remains doggedly downbeat about the condition of the national economy, even as many experts and economists see signs of recovery. As has been the case for most of the past two years, about nine-in-ten (88%) rate national economic conditions as only fair or poor, and over the past year there has been no decline in the percentage saying the economy will stay the same (36%) or get worse (19%) a year from now.

In this light, it is not surprising that many Americans are dubious about the effectiveness of the government’s principal economic programs. Just 33% say the economic stimulus passed by Congress last year has helped the job situation and only somewhat more (42%) say the loans the federal government provided to troubled financial institutions prevented a more severe financial crisis. Less than a third (31%) says that the government has made progress in fixing the problems that caused the 2008 financial crisis.

More generally, perceptions of the job situation may well be the critical factor in the public’s economic gloom and doubts about the effectiveness of government economic policies. In a News Interest Index survey in early April, 66% said they were hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy overall, while a majority (56%) said they were hearing mostly bad news about the job situation. (See “Public Remains Focused on Health Care Reform, April 7, 2010.)

The political consequences of the public’s unabated economic pessimism are evident in the new polling. Barack Obama’s overall job approval rating is 47%, the fifth month in a row he has polled below 50%; just 38% say they approve of his handling of the economy. His party’s capabilities are now also under a cloud. The Democratic Party has lost ground to the Republican Party on a wide range of issues, including the job situation.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the Press, conducted April 21-26 among 1,546 adults, finds that as many say the Republican Party (36%) as the Democratic Party (37%) could do better in improving the job situation. Four years ago, the Democrats enjoyed a 47% to 29% advantage on this issue. Similarly, the public is evenly split over which party could do a better job of dealing with banks and financial institutions (36% each). Nor is there a consensus on who can reduce the federal budget deficit (38% Republican vs. 35% Democratic Party).

The Democratic Party holds a significant edge on only one of six issues tested – dealing with the nation’s energy problems. Even there however, its 40% to 32% advantage over the GOP is far narrower than its 22-point lead last August (47% to 25%).

Nuclear Arms Treaty Lauded

While Obama’s principal economic policies do not get good reviews, the public on balance has a positive view of his approach to the situation in the Middle East: far more say he is striking the right balance (47%) than say he favors the Palestinians (21%) or the Israelis (7%) too much.

Moreover, Obama gets broad bipartisan support for the treaty he recently signed with Russia to cut the number of nuclear weapons in both countries. Overall, 71% approve of Obama’s decision to sign the treaty, while 64% approve of Obama’s decision to declare that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries.

However, the poll finds the public split over Obama’s decision to stop developing new nuclear weapons. While most Democrats (61%) approve of this decision, about as many Republicans (66%) disapprove while independents are divided (48% approve, 47% disapprove).

More broadly, a plurality of Americans (47%) continue to say that Obama is not tough enough in his approach to foreign policy and national security issues. Most Republicans (70%) say Obama is not tough enough in dealing with national security issues, while nearly as many Democrats (66%) say his approach is about right. About half of independents (52%) say Obama is not tough enough, while 37% say he handles foreign affairs about right.

As Obama prepares to make his second Supreme Court nomination, public perceptions of the court have shifted. Today, as many Americans think the current court is liberal as say it is conservative (24% each). Three years ago, 36% said the court was conservative and just 14% saw it as liberal. This shift in views spans partisan lines, as Republicans, Democrats and independents alike see the court as less conservative than three years ago. Four-in-ten Americans say the president’s choice of the next Supreme Court justice is very important to them personally, and there is equal interest in the next nomination on the political left and right.