WASHINGTON Wherever the nation should be headed, this isn't it.
The number of Americans who believe the country is moving in the wrong direction has risen sharply, to nearly eight in 10, amid soaring food and gas prices, falling home values and unending war. Just 17 percent say the country is going in the right direction, according to an AP-Ipsos poll.
The right-direction number is the lowest ever recorded by the survey, which began in 2003. When other surveys are taken into account, the general level of pessimism is the worst in almost 30 years.
And it's getting worse. The 17 percent positive reading was down from 24 percent just since April.
Those who said the country was on the wrong track totaled 76 percent of the people contacted in the survey, which was taken from June 12-16. That's up from 71 percent in April and 66 percent near the end of 2007.
Six in 10 of those who chose wrong track blamed the struggling economy, with gasoline prices hovering above $4 a primary reason. "Poor leadership" accounted for 23 percent, while 20 percent said the war in Iraq.
Robert Ovitt, 57, of Derby, Vt., who describes himself as a political independent, was among those who selected "wrong track."
"It scares me, the way things are going now," said Ovitt, who is facing retirement in the next five years from his job as a correctional officer.
"Ten years ago, we had a Democratic president, Clinton," and the worst that happened was his affairs, Ovitt said. Back then, gas prices, interest rates, unemployment and the federal budget deficit were low, he said. "Now that we have a Republican, everything is sky high. ... I mean I don't know how we're going to survive."
Shirley J. Bailey, 70, of Las Vegas, is already retired. The former Los Angeles dentist, who worked as a precinct captain for Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, said, "People are struggling to live and educate their children." Married with four children and 11 grandchildren, Bailey said, "Just look around us. In my entire lifetime, I never paid $4.23 for a gallon of gas. The foreclosures are among the highest here in Las Vegas."
President Bush's approval rating was 29 percent in the poll, near his all-time low of 28 percent in April, while 67 percent said they disapproved of the way he was handling his job.
Congress, under Democratic control since January 2007, drew even lower approval ratings: 23 percent approved, 72 percent disapproved, roughly the same levels as in the April survey.
Asked about their party affiliation, 37 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 23 percent said they were Republicans and 23 percent said independents. That breakdown underscores the importance of independents in the presidential contest as both Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama court their support.
Software consultant April Dolan, 40, of Scottsdale, Ariz., is a Republican who believes the country is heading in the right direction. "I'm optimistic in general, and I do believe that the economic situation will probably get better in the next 12 to 18 months. I believe it's going to turn around, it's just going to take some time," she said. "Not that everything I think is great. I mean, the oil prices are a nightmare."
She said she has two sons, one already in college and the other due to enter next year. She said she supports Bush and "I don't blame him for the state of the economy."
Many others appear to, however.
Asked about Bush's handling of the economy, 72 percent said they disapproved, 48 percent strongly so; 24 percent said they approved, 7 percent strongly.
The survey reinforces the notion that consumers are particularly gloomy possibly more than economic statistics justify. Despite record energy costs, slumping stock prices and the housing and credit crunch, reports show the economy to be still growing, if slowly. Inflation and interest rates remain at relatively tame levels. And the unemployment rate is lower than it was during the past two recessions, in 1990 and 2001.
Still, "For the average American, everything's going wrong. I think there's a lot of reasons for households to be pessimistic. I think things have gotten tougher for most," said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Economy.com.
The survey results also parallel the drop in a consumer confidence index to the lowest level since June 1980, when Jimmy Carter was in the White House and consumers were being battered by a recession and soaring gasoline prices.
Among the findings of the AP-Ipsos survey:
Men were more likely than women to think that the U.S. is headed in the right direction 20 percent to 14 percent.
Just one in 10 Americans with household incomes below $25,000 feel the country is headed the right way compared with 21 percent of those with household incomes of $50,000 to $75,000.
One-quarter of Republicans (including those who said they were leaning Republican) believe the country is headed in the right direction, compared with 11 percent of Democrats (including those leaning Democratic).
People with lower incomes were more likely to frame the economic situation as their own "cost of living," while wealthier people listed the economy more abstractly a sign that those hurting the most personalize the issue a bit more.
People in the AP-Ipsos survey were asked: "Generally speaking, would you say things in this country are heading in the right direction, or are they off on the wrong track?" The survey entailed interviews with 1,000 adults, 785 of them registered voters. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for all respondents, 3.5 percent for registered voters.