Optimism about the country's direction has grown slightly, but Americans remain worried about the economy and sharply divided over how to fix it, according to a Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll released Friday.
The highest percentage of Americans since 2009 -- 41 percent -- say the country is generally headed in the right direction, and half think the economy will improve by the end of President Obama's second term. Expectations are down, however, for a speedy improvement. Forty-four percent of those polled expected the economy to improve over the next year, down 13 points since September.
Americans see job creation as the nation's most pressing economic issue, followed by government spending and the budget deficit. Just 9 percent cited the fiscal cliff as the biggest concern, and just 6 percent chose taxes.
Partisan and racial differences loomed large in which issues people wanted elected officials to address, as the National Journal notes:
For whites, dealing with the deficit ranks as the clear first priority, followed by Social Security and Medicare, and then the availability of good jobs. For minorities, the top priority is the education system (which ranked only sixth among whites), followed by the entitlement programs, jobs, and the cost of health care.
Similarly, poll respondents who said they voted for Romney identify reducing the deficit, by far, as their highest priority, followed by national defense and the war on terrorism. Among Obama voters, debt ranked fifth and terrorism was 12th. Their top priorities are education, jobs, health care costs, and the entitlement programs.
Romney's supporters were more likely to advocate cutting taxes or lowering the deficit as the best long-term economic strategies, while Obama's supporters focused on investments in areas including education, research and infrastructure.
Opinion is also split on Obama's economic performance to date. Nearly equal numbers either blamed him for job losses and the deficit, or credited him for preventing a broader crisis -- numbers that have barely changed over the last three years, including during the 2012 campaign.
As in other recent polling, Obama's job approval rating is at its strongest in years, hitting 54 percent.
Americans trusted the president over Congressional Republicans by 16 points to solve the country's economic challenges. While a majority called on both sides to compromise for the sake of productivity, more than half of Americans wanted the president to take a "visionary," long-term approach to governing rather than a "practical" one.
The Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll surveyed 1,000 adults by phone between Nov. 25 and Dec. 1, with a 3.1 percent margin of error.