Half See Glimmers of Recovery, Yet Economic Gloom Stays Deep

There's a slight glimmer of light in public views of the economy: Half of Americans say it's begun to recover. But negatives aplenty threaten to douse that candle.

Among people who see a recovery beginning, nearly three-quarters say it's a weak one. Among those unconvinced it's begun, most don't expect it anytime soon. Ratings of the job market, 84 percent negative, are at their lowest in polls since 1992. And six in 10 Americans say the U.S. economy is in "long-term decline," essentially unchanged from the height of despair a year ago.

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On a more personal level, 64 percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll are worried about maintaining their standard of living, also no better than a year ago and much lower than pre-crisis. Fifty-seven percent report personal stress as a result of the economic situation, again, where it's been all year. For more than one in four – 28 percent – it's "serious" stress.

The number who say a recovery's begun, 50 percent, is up from 44 percent a month ago – the most hopeful sign in otherwise bleak views. In another bottom-line question, by contrast, 13 percent say that from their perspective, the recession is over, while 86 percent think not. That's slightly gloomier than last month's 82 percent.

Separately, the ABC News Consumer Comfort Index is wrapping up what will be its worst year in 24 years of weekly polls. This week 93 percent of Americans say the national economy is in bad shape, 71 percent call it a bad time to spend money and 53 percent say their own finances are hurting. The index, figured on a scale of +100 to -100, is -45 now and has averaged -48 this year, compared to a long-term average of -12. It started the '00s at a record high +38.

POLITICAL PAIN – There are political repercussions: As noted in yesterday's analysis, Barack Obama's job approval rating has fallen to 50 percent, with 46 percent disapproving. On the economy, 52 percent disapprove, a new high; on the deficit, 56 percent, likewise a high.

We've been here before. Ronald Reagan, the last president to take office in the teeth of a recession, fell from a high of 73 percent approval near the start of his first term to 52 percent the following December, then stayed there for most of his second year in office – bottoming out at 42 percent – until the economy turned around. Obama, so far, has followed a similar path.

JOBS JOBS JOBS – Unemployment and underemployment are major contributors to the public's economic pain. As recently as November 2007, 41 percent in a Pew Research poll said there were "plenty of jobs available" in their community. Today just 12 percent say so.

Eighty-four percent instead call jobs "difficult to find," the most in polls back nearly 18 years, and up 36 points in barely more than two years. And that assessment holds across groups, with at best only minor differences by region, age, education, income or political preference.

There are differences in views of whether a recovery has begun, informed in part by political predispositions – 64 percent of Democrats say yes, just 45 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of independents agree. Young adults and college graduates also are more apt to see recovery as under way.

Even among Democrats who see improvement, just a third say it's strong, and that falls sharply in other groups; all told, as noted, among those who think a recovery's begun, 73 percent see it as a weak one. And among the other half, who see no recovery yet, 82 percent don't think the economy will begin to recover for more than a year.

DECLINE and WORRY – There also are political differences in views of whether the economy's in a long-term decline, or the economic system is still pretty solid. Liberal Democrats are most optimistic, dividing by 45 percent to 49 percent. Conservative Republicans, by contrast, see a long-term decline by better than 2-1, 67 percent to 29 percent.

The trend overall is not good. The 61 percent who see a long-term decline now is about the same as the 63 percent who said so a year ago. That compares to 49 and 46 percent, respectively, in polls in early 2008 and mid-1996.

Similarly, the 64 percent who express worry about maintaining their standard of living compares with 51 percent in late 2007. And that concern is a strong predictor of personal stress as a result of economic conditions. In stress itself, income's a very strong factor; among people in the highest income bracket, 48 percent report stress from the economy, 24 percent "serious" stress. In the lowest-income families stress soars to 67 percent, with serious stress affecting four in 10.

METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 10-13, 2009, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results for the full sample have a 3.5-point error margin. Click here for a detailed description of sampling error. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.