WASHINGTON (AP) -- Entering 2012, President Barack Obama's re-election prospects are essentially a 50-50 proposition, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll. It found that most Americans say the president deserves to be voted out of office even though they have concerns about the Republican alternatives.
Obama's overall standing in the poll suggests he could be in jeopardy of losing re-election even as the survey showed that public's outlook on the economy appears to be improving. For the first time since spring, more people said the economy got better in the past month than said it got worse. The president's approval rating on unemployment shifted upward - from 40 percent in October to 45 percent in the latest poll - as the jobless rate fell to 8.6 percent last month, its lowest level since March 2009.
But Obama's approval rating on his handling of the economy overall remains stagnant: Thirty-nine percent approve and 60 percent disapprove.
Heading into his re-election campaign, the president faces a conflicted public. It does not support his steering of the economy, the most dominant issue for Americans, or his overhaul of health care, one of his signature accomplishments, but it also is grappling with whether to replace him with Republican contenders Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich.
The poll found Americans were evenly divided over whether they expect Obama to be re-elected next year.
For the first time, the poll found that a majority of adults, 52 percent, said Obama should be voted out of office while 43 percent said he deserves another term. The numbers mark a reversal since last May, when 53 percent said Obama should be re-elected while 43 percent said he didn't deserve four more years.
Obama's overall job approval stands at a new low, with 44 percent approving and 54 percent disapproving. The president's standing among independents is worse: Thirty-eight percent approve while 59 percent disapprove. Among Democrats, the president holds steady with an approval rating of 78 percent while only 12 percent of Republicans approve of the job he's doing.
"I think he's doing the best he can. The problem is the Congress won't help at all," said Rosario Navarro, a Democrat and a 44-year-old truck driver from Fresno, Calif., who voted for Obama in 2008 and intends to support him again.
Robin Dein, a 54-year-old homemaker from Villanova, Pa., who is an independent, said she supported Republican John McCain in 2008 and has not been impressed with Obama's economic policies. She intends to support Romney if he wins the GOP nomination.
Obama, she said, "spent the first part of his presidency blaming Bush for everything, not that he was innocent, and now his way of solving anything is by spending more money."
Despite the soft level of support, many are uncertain whether a Republican president would be a better choice. Asked whom they would support next November, 47 percent of adults favored Obama and 46 percent Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. Against Gingrich, the president holds a solid advantage, receiving 51 percent compared with 42 percent for the former House speaker.
The potential matchups paint a better picture for the president among independents. Obama receives 45 percent of nonaligned adults compared with 41 percent for Romney. Against Gingrich, Obama holds a wide lead among independents, with 54 percent supporting the president and 31 percent backing the former Georgia congressman.
Another piece of good news for Obama: People generally like him personally. Obama's personal favorability rating held steady at 53 percent, with 46 percent viewing him unfavorably. About three-quarters called him likable.
The economy remains a source of pessimism, though the poll suggests the first positive movement in public opinion on the economy in months. One in five said the economy improved in the last month, double the share saying so in October. Still most expect it to stay the same or get worse.
"I suppose you could make some sort of argument that it's getting better, but I'm not sure I even see that," said independent voter John Bailey, a 61-year-old education consultant from East Jordan, Mich. "I think it's bad and it's gotten worse under (Obama's) policies. At best, it's going to stay bad."
Despite the high rate of joblessness, the poll found some optimism on the economy. Although 80 percent described the economy as "poor," respondents describing it "very poor" fell from 43 percent in October to 34 percent in the latest poll, the lowest since May. Twenty percent said the economy got better in the past month while 37 percent said they expected the economy to improve next year.
Yet plenty of warning signs remain for Obama. Only 26 percent said the United States is headed in the right direction while 70 percent said the country was moving in the wrong direction.
The president won a substantial number of female voters in 2008 yet there does not appear to be a significant tilt toward Obama among women now. The poll found 44 percent of women say Obama deserves a second term, down from 51 percent in October, while 43 percent of men say the president should be re-elected.
About two-thirds of white voters without college degrees say Obama should be a one-term president, while 33 percent of those voters say he should get another four years. Among white voters with a college degree, 57 percent said Obama should be voted out of office.
The poll found unpopularity for last year's health care overhaul. About half of the respondents oppose the health care law and support for it dipped to 29 percent from 36 percent in June. Just 15 percent said the federal government should have the power to require all Americans to buy health insurance.
Even among Democrats, the health care law has tepid support. Fifty percent of Democrats supported the health care law, compared with 59 percent of Democrats last June. Only about a quarter of independents back the law.
The president has taken a more populist tone in his handling of the economy, arguing that the wealthy should pay more in taxes to help pay for the extension of a payroll tax cut that would provide about $1,000 in tax cuts to a family earning about $50,000 a year. Among those with annual household incomes of $50,000 or less, Obama's approval rating on unemployment climbed to 53 percent from 43 percent in October.
The Associated Press-GfK Poll was conducted Dec. 8-12 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,000 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Associated Press writer Stacy A. Anderson and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.