Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the future but voters do not seem to be holding it against Democratic President Barack Obama, who slightly expanded his lead over Republican rival Mitt Romney this month, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll says.
Three months before the November 6 presidential election, nearly two-thirds of Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction. Only 31% say it is moving in the right direction - the lowest number since December 2011.
But Obama's lead over Romney among registered voters was 49% to 42%, up slightly from the 6-point advantage the president held a month earlier over the former Massachusetts governor.
The results of the monthly poll - in which a majority of voters agreed that the economy is the most important problem facing the United States - suggest that the Obama campaign's efforts to paint Romney as being out of touch with the concerns of middle-class Americans could be preventing the Republican from gaining momentum in the race.
"The overall 'right track, wrong track' is worse than last month - the news hasn't been great lately," said Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson. "But Obama seems to be, to some extent, inoculated against some of the worst of that."
The telephone poll of 1,168 adults, including 1,014 registered voters, was taken from August 2 to August 6. During that period, the Labor Department reported that US employers hired the most workers in five months but that the nation's jobless rate had risen to 8.3% from 8.2%.
Even so, in a reversal from July, registered voters thought Obama was stronger than Romney in dealing with jobs and the economy, and with tax issues.
The poll indicated that 46% of registered voters thought Obama was stronger on jobs and the economy, compared with 44% for Romney. And on tax matters, 49% saw Obama as stronger, compared with 38% for Romney.
In an advertising blitz that has been focused on a dozen politically divided states, Obama and his Democratic allies have been hammering Romney's record as a private equity executive at Bain Capital, accusing him of plundering companies and shipping jobs overseas.
'Kitchen sink' strategy
The Obama team's ads also have questioned why Romney - who has an estimated fortune of up to $250 million - will not release more than two years of tax returns, and have suggested that Romney has paid far lower tax rates than most Americans.
"The Democrats' current strategy of just pummeling Romney on Bain and on the economy has been kind of a kitchen sink thing," Jackson said. "Even if it's not necessarily hurt Romney, it's given him no opportunity to build a lead."
Obama's new lead on the issue of jobs and the economy is particularly significant, Jackson said.
"That is the key issue in this race," he said. "For Romney to be able to make a convincing argument and to win the election, he's going to have to have a fairly significant lead over Obama on that measure."
Jackson said Romney - who has based his campaign on the notion that he would be better than Obama at dealing with the economy - likely needs to have at least a 5- to 8-point lead over Obama on the jobs and economy issue to win the election.
"There's certainly no case at the moment that Romney's building some sort of momentum toward victory here," Jackson said.
Obama vs Romney on foreign policy
Thanks to Mitt Romney 's overseas trip, foreign policy has had an airing in a presidential campaign dominated, as usual, by domestic matters. For all the words on both sides, though, it can be difficult in the end to see how President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger differ on what they would do.
Some contrasts may turn out to be consequential, considering Romney's seemingly harder line on Iran, Russia and more. Others may be overtaken, as foreign policy often is, by developments abroad that no one can predict and by the tendency of US politicians to see national security interests in a less divisive light than domestic affairs when the time comes to act.
A synopsis of their positions on a selection of foreign policy issues:
Campaign aides for Obama and Romney have said the two leaders want to continue America's increasingly strong relationship with India. "I think this (ties with India) is an area where we've had a lot of, frankly, continuity and bipartisan support.
India is an important security partner today. Our military relationship has never been closer. That is growing," said Michele Flournoy, co-chair of the National Security Advisory Committee of 'Obama for America' campaign, in July at an event organised by the Brookings Institute, a Washington-based think-tank.
Rich Williamson, senior adviser for foreign and defence policy of 'Romney for President' campaign, who spoke at the same function, agreed with Flournoy and praised the former US president George W Bush for "strengthening and renewing" relationship with India.
Both say Iran cannot be allowed to gain the capability to build nuclear weapons.
Obama opposes a near-term military strike on Iran, either by the US or by Israel, to sabotage nuclear facilities that could be misused to produce a nuclear weapon, preferring sanctions and negotiation for now. But he reserves the right to conclude that only a military strike can stop Iran from getting the bomb.
Romney appears to present Iran as a clearer US military threat and has spoken in more permissive terms about Israel's right to act, without explicitly approving of such a step. "Of course you take military action" if sanctions and internal opposition fail to dissuade Tehran from making a nuclear weapon, he has said.
Obama and Romney are on the same page in planning for an end to combat operations in 2014, the likely outcome no matter who wins in November.
Romney has quarreled with the pace and scope of the withdrawal since early in the Republican primary campaign while recently making clear his endorsement of the 2014 end point.
He says, though, he would ultimately be guided by conditions on the ground and the advice of commanders, perhaps making his deadline softer than Obama's. But the president, too, is capable of adapting to developments in Afghanistan.
The bottom line is that, barring an extraordinary turn of events, neither candidate has the taste to carry on the war beyond 2014.
Both candidates say President Bashar Assad must leave power. Both stop short of committing US forces to making him go.
Obama declined to repeat the Libya air power commitment for the Syrian opposition, instead seeking to build international consensus toward the goal of persuading Assad to leave and to press Russia and China to stop shielding his government from international sanctions.
The Obama administration placed financial sanctions on many top members of the Syrian government as an additional pressure tactic.
Romney has spoken in favor of covert action by the US and regional allies in Syria while saying "the right course is not military" intervention by the US.
Romney has branded Russia the "No. 1 geopolitical foe" of the US, drawing a rhetorical line at odds with Obama's effort to improve relations that deteriorated in the previous administration. What this distinction means in practice is uncertain.
Obama's work to improve US-Russia relations - the administration's cliche is to "reset" them - has been overlaid with new tensions, over Syria and more, as well as some successes, such as the negotiation of the New START agreement reducing nuclear arsenals in both countries.
Romney pledges to review that agreement, although actually backing out is almost unimaginable, and he says he would help Central Asian and European states become less dependent on Russian energy as a way to check Moscow's expansionist behavior.
He also proposes encouraging civil-society exchanges with Russians to counter increasingly "authoritarian" practices of the government.
The Obama White House, too, has voiced worry about a backtracking of democracy in Russia and sharply criticized a new law requiring non-governmental groups that get foreign money and engage in political activity to register as foreign agents.
Romney has aligned himself closely with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and sought to exploit the sense that relations with Israel are shaky under Obama.
He pledges more military assistance to Israel and agreed with Israel's position that Jerusalem is Israel's capital, disregarding the Palestinians' claim to the eastern sector, annexed by Israel in 1967 in a move that is not internationally recognized. This contrasts with US policy that the city's designation is a matter for negotiation between the Jewish state and Palestinians.
But Romney has not committed to moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv, saying only that he is open to that.
Obama has chastised Israel for continuing to build housing settlements in disputed areas and has pressed both sides to begin a new round of peace talks based on the land borders established after the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. He's also signed a law to expand military and civilian cooperation with Israel. The law affirms US support for negotiating the establishment of a Palestinian state, reflecting a bipartisan consensus in the US
Romney says he would brand China as a currency manipulator, a step that could lead to broad trade sanctions if talks did not resolve the dispute. A country's artificially low currency can give it a disproportionate trade advantage by making its exports cheaper.
Obama has refused to cite China for currency manipulation, fearing a trade war, instead pressing China diplomatically to lets its currency rise.
But his administration has aggressively brought unfair-trade cases against China to the World Trade Organization.
Romney also proposes more military capabilities in the Pacific to challenge Beijing's growing influence in East Asia.
(With Reuters and AP inputs)