Optimism about the national economy, which sagged in 2011, has rebounded in the first two months of this year. Currently, 44% say they expect economic conditions to be better a year from now, up from 34% last month and 28% in December.

Moreover, 54% say either that the economy is already recovering (25%) or that it will recover soon (29%). Last April, 44% said a recovery was already underway or would occur soon.

Yet the public’s improved economic outlook is tempered by a number of factors. First, current views of the economy remain overwhelmingly negative: Just 11% say economic conditions today are excellent or good, a figure that has changed little over the past four years. While the percentage rating current economic conditions as “poor” has fallen 13 points since August, from 56% to 43%, it is virtually unchanged from a year ago (42%).

Second, economic optimism has proven fragile in the past. From October 2008 through April 2010, 40% or more said they expected economic conditions to get better in the next year. But by last summer, the percentage expecting things to improve had fallen to around 30%.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Feb. 8-12 among 1,501 adults, finds an uptick in Barack Obama’s job rating. Currently, 47% approve of the way he is handling his job as president while 43% disapprove. Last month, 44% approved and 48% disapproved.

Obama’s job rating among independents has rebounded sharply from a low point in January. Currently, 45% of independents approve of Obama’s job performance while 44% disapprove. Last month, just 37% approved and 56% disapproved. Obama also has improved his standing with independent voters in a general election matchup with Mitt Romney. (For more see, “Santorum Catches Romney in GOP Race,” Feb. 13, 2012.)

Obama’s overall favorability rating is about the same as it was in January (54% now, 51% then). Among independents, however, Obama is viewed more favorably: Currently, 52% have a favorable impression of Obama while 42% view him unfavorably. In January, 44% had a favorable opinion of Obama, while 51% viewed him unfavorably.

Still, Obama’s overall job rating – and his approval among independents – is no better than it was a year ago. In February 2011, 49% approved of his job performance and 42% disapproved. Independents were evenly split, as they are today (46% approved, 45% disapproved). (For breakdown of Obama’s current job rating see detailed tables.)

The public’s perceptions of the impact of Obama’s economic policies have shown substantial improvement since last fall. Yet the overall balance of opinion about the effect of Obama’s policies is about the same as it was at the beginning of 2011.

Currently, 33% say Obama’s economic policies have made conditions better while about the same percentage (35%) say they have made conditions worse; 25% say they have had no effect so far. Last October, nearly twice as many said Obama’s policies had made conditions worse than better (38% vs. 20%). In January 2011, like today, opinions were mixed: 28% said Obama’s policies made conditions better, 31% worse and 35% said they had had no effect.

There are wide partisan gaps in views of the impact of Obama’s economic policies, as well as in economic perceptions and economic optimism. About seven-in-ten Republicans (71%) say Obama’s economic policies have made economic conditions worse; that is little changed from last October (70%), but up 12 points from January 2011 (59%). By contrast, Democrats are now more likely to say Obama’s policies have made the economy better (60%) than they were in October (37%) or January (46%).

Independents’ evaluations of the impact of Obama’s policies are more positive than in October, and about the same as in January 2011. Currently, 29% of independents say his policies have made the economy better, 34% say they have made it worse and 29% say they have had no effect so far.

More Say Economy Will Improve

The survey finds an increase in economic optimism since late last year across nearly all demographic and political groups. In December, only about a quarter of whites (24%) said economic conditions would be better in a year; 53% expected conditions would be the same and 19% said they would be worse. In the current survey, 41% expect conditions to improve in the next year, 45% say they will be the same and 11% say they will be worse. There have been comparable gains in optimism among blacks and Hispanics, who have consistently been more optimistic than whites.

In December, far more college graduates expected economic conditions would be the same in a year (52%) than said conditions would be better (29%). Today, more expect economic conditions to improve (52%) than to remain the same (36%).

Democrats and independents have become much more optimistic about the economy. Currently, 61% of Democrats and 42% of independents say conditions will be better a year from now – the highest percentages expressing economic optimism since 2009. In December, just 39% of Democrats and 23% of independents expected the economy to improve in a year.

Republicans are considerably less upbeat about the economy’s trajectory. About half (51%) say economic conditions a year from now will be the same as they are today, which is little changed from December. Three-in-ten (30%) say conditions will be better, up from 21% in December.

Despite the growing percentage that expects the economy to be in better shape a year from now, just a quarter (25%) say the economy is now recovering; 29% say the economy is not yet recovering but will recover soon; 44% say it will be a long time before the economy recovers.

Opinions on this measure have fluctuated over time. Last April, more said recovery was a long way off (54%) than do so today (44%). In February 2011, 24% said the economy was recovering, 33% said it would recover soon and 42% said a recovery was in the distant future.

Partisanship is a major factor in views of the economic recovery. About seven-in-ten Democrats (71%) say the economy is recovering (39%) or will recover soon (32%); just 27% think the recovery is a long way off. Nearly six-in-ten Republicans (59%) say it will be a long time before the economy recovers. Independents are divided: 52% say either the economy is recovering (25%) or will recover soon (27%); 46% say an economic recovery is a long way off.

Less Negative Views of Current Economy

Currently, just 11% rate current economic conditions as excellent or good. Nearly half (46%) say conditions are only fair while about the same percentage (43%) rate them as poor. The number saying the economy is poor has declined in recent months – from 56% last August to 43% currently. But positive views of economic conditions have not risen.

Democrats are now more likely than Republicans or independents to view current economic conditions as excellent or good. In the current survey, 19% of Democrats rate the economy positively, compared with 7% of Republicans and the same percentage of independents. In August, just 8% of Democrats, and comparable shares of Republicans (5%) and independents (6%) said economic conditions were excellent or good.

Lower Jobless Rate Registers with Public

Nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) know that the national unemployment rate has been decreasing in recent months. About a third (32%) say incorrectly that the rate has been going up.

Better educated people are more likely than those with less education to be aware of recent declines in the unemployment rate. There also is a modest partisan gap: 66% of Democrats say the unemployment rate has been decreasing, compared with 56% of independents and 51% of Republicans.