When elected officials are dropped from the equation, the public mood brightens a bit, the new poll found. The share of adults saying things in the country are heading in the right direction has climbed 12 percentage points since the government shutdown, to 34 percent. Still, almost twice as many, 66 percent, say things are heading the wrong way.
Independents, who can be crucial in general elections when persuaded to vote, share the modestly growing optimism. Whereas 82 percent of independents said the country was headed in the wrong direction in October, the number now is 69 percent.
More adults now say they expect improvement in their household's financial standing in the coming year: 30 percent, compared with 24 percent in October. More also say it's a good time to make major purchases, although the number is an unimpressive 19 percent.
Megan Barnes of Columbia, Md., is among those who see an uptick in their own finances but give scant credit to politicians.
"I think the economy seems to be fairly stable, and for my family in the future, it's going to be OK," said Barnes, 32, a stay-at-home mom married to a software engineer.
She said she strongly disapproves of Congress and leans toward disapproval of Obama.
In Congress, Barnes said, "I'd like to see people put their jobs on the line to get things done, and not worry about the next election." A moderate Republican, Barnes said she would like to see someone replace her member of the House, Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings.
As for Obama, she said it's troubling that he seemed to know little about the National Security Agency's spying on international allies or the serious problems in the rollout of his health law.
"He also doesn't seem to really work with the Congress a lot, even with his own party, to build consensus and get things done," Barnes said.