The vast majority of Americans rate U.S. economic conditions as only fair (38%) or poor (53%) and most expect more of the same – or worse – over the course of the next year. Half (50%) expect the economy to be unchanged a year from now, while 18% expect things to get worse. Just 28% expect the economy to improve.

These grim expectations come even as fewer Americans say they are hearing mostly bad news about the economy. In a separate survey conducted Dec. 1-4, 36% said the economic news these days is mostly bad, down from 67% four months ago.

The public’s economic outlook has soured over the past two years. In June 2009 nearly half (48%) were optimistic about the economy, and as recently as April 2010, a 42% plurality expected economic conditions in the country to improve over the next year. That figure fell to 29% in June and August of this year and remains low, at 28% today.

Democrats are more optimistic than either Republicans or independents; 39% of Democrats think the economy will improve over the coming year compared with 21% and 23% of Republicans and independents, respectively. Yet Democratic expectations have declined sharply over the past few years. As recently as April 2010, 61% of Democrats thought the economy was on track to improve.

Threats to America’s Economic Well-Being

Asked to rate several possible threats to the country’s economic well being, 76% say the size of the national debt is a major threat, while smaller majorities cite economic competition from China (59%) and the power of financial institutions and banks (56%). Fewer than half say Europe’s economic problems (46%) and government regulation of business (44%) are major threats to the nation’s economic well-being.

Large majorities across partisan groups see the national debt as a major threat, but Republicans (88%) are more likely than Democrats (67%) to express this view; 77% of independents say the size of the national debt represents a major threat to U.S. well-being.

The partisan gap is even wider in views of whether government regulation of business is a major economic threat. More than six-in-ten Republicans (63%) say government regulation is a major threat; just 42% of independents and 33% of Democrats agree.

Most Democrats (62%) and independents (59%) say the power of financial institutions is a major threat to the nation’s economic well-being, compared with 45% of Republicans.

Europe’s economic problems are not widely seen as a danger to the U.S. economy. Only about half of Republicans and independents (49% each) say Europe’s problems represent a major threat to the economic well-being of the United States. Similarly, 43% of Democrats see the situation in Europe as a major threat.

Personal Finances: Not Great Now, But Expected to Improve

Americans’ assessments of their own finances have remained steady, if not especially positive. About four-in-ten call their personal financial situations excellent (6%) or good (32%), while more say they are in only fair (37%) or poor (24%) shape financially.

At the same time, most Americans remain optimistic about their financial futures: 58% expect their own financial situations to improve over the next year. This has varied little in recent years, and financial hope has a long history: Since the question was first asked almost 20 years ago, a majority always has said their own financial situations would improve over the next year.

Republicans are more likely to say their current economic situations are excellent or good (54%) than are independents (36%) or Democrats (32%). Democrats are slightly more likely than Republicans to expect their personal finances to improve over the next year (62% versus 54%); 60% of independents also express optimism about their finances.