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What They Told Us: Reviewing Last Week’s Key Polls - Week Ending January 24, 2015

Maybe it’s just the improving economy, but voters are less critical of the job President Obama is doing and even appear receptive to some of the new government programs he’s proposing. That doesn’t necessarily mean they want to pay for them, though.

A number of economic indicators including our daily readings of consumer and investor confidence are now at levels we haven’t seen since before the Wall Street meltdown in 2008. 

But only 21% of voters agree with the president’s contention in his State of the Union address Tuesday night that the economic crisis is over. Just over half, however, like his proposals from that speech including increased spending on infrastructure, mandatory paid sick leave and tax cuts of up to $3,000 per child per year to help middle- and lower-income families afford child care.

Voters also tend to like Obama's plan for free community college for millions of Americans - as long as it doesn't cost taxpayers anything.

Prior to the State of the Union address, just 17% said the president should focus on new spending programs, while 68% thought he should focus instead on programs that can be accomplished within current spending levels.

To pay for his new proposals, the president has called for $320 billion in tax increases on the wealthiest Americans including raising capital gains and inheritance taxes. Voters support those tax increases by a 49% to 41% margin, but 66% think it’s likely that middle-class taxes will go up, too.

Voters also still place more importance on government policies that encourage a free market over ones that reduce the income gap between rich and poor.

Obama’s daily job approval ratings have been improving since his party’s major reverses on Election Day. Following his State of the Union speech, they have risen to some of the highest levels of his entire presidency.

While Americans are sending positive signals about much of the economy, they remain deeper in debt than they were last year at this time.

Still, homeowners are more confident than they have been since the housing bubble burst that their homes will be worth more in one year and in five years’ time. They’re also more optimistic about the current value of their home.

But Americans as a whole still aren’t convinced that now is a good time to put a house on the market where they live.

Americans are also well aware that lower gas prices and the surging energy industry are critical to the improving economy, even as Congress and the president battle over the future of the Keystone XL pipeline from Western Canada to Texas.

Despite increasing economic confidence, only 30% of voters think the country is heading in the right direction. This is consistent with findings for over two years now. Just 32% believe America’s best days are still to come.

Players in both major parties think they can do better and are already angling for position in next year’s race to be Obama’s successor.

Generally, at this stage of the game, it’s mostly about name recognition, and Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, is the leader in the race to be his party’s standard-bearer in 2016. But Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and retired neurosurgeon and conservative columnist Ben Carson show surprising support early on.

For many though, the early GOP battle is between Romney and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Many see it as the battle of the moderates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. How do Republicans vote in a Bush/Romney matchup?

We’ll give you a look at the presidential race on the Democratic side early next week, including a one-on-one matchup between Hillary Clinton and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Following last November's midterm elections, voters are more confident in the fairness of U.S. elections than they have been in over two years, but they're still highly skeptical of their own representatives in Congress.

Democrats hold a one-point lead over Republicans on the latest Generic Congressional Ballot.

In other surveys last week:

-- Voters are more critical of the health care they personally receive but don’t expect it to get better under Obamacare. Most think consumers are better off with less government involvement in the health care marketplace

-- Americans are starting off 2015 with their most positive view of the country’s banking system since before the Wall Street meltdown.

-- Concern about inflation appears to be trending down, and Americans are more confident in the federal government to handle it. 

-- Most voters still oppose closing the terrorist prison camp at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba and worry that the suspected terrorists who are released will attack the United States and its allies. 

-- Americans continue to hold Martin Luther King Jr. in high esteem nearly 50 years after his murder, but most think his dream of equality still hasn't been fulfilled.

-- It’s been a difficult year for race relations in the United States, but most Americans still think they can talk honestly about race with each other.

-- Half of Americans have now seen the film “American Sniper” or plan to go, while most dismiss its critics as politically motivated.

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