WASHINGTON Americans are deeply pessimistic about the future as economic concerns rise and White House talks on raising the U.S. debt limit sputter, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.
The number of Americans who believe the country is on the wrong track rose to 63 percent this month, up from 60 percent in June, with stubbornly high unemployment and prolonged gridlock in Washington dashing hopes of a swift economic recovery.
But voters do not appear to be holding President Barack Obama responsible for the problems so far. Obama's approval rating held relatively steady at 49 percent, down 1 percentage point from June. His approval rating among independents -- a group Obama needs to win re-election -- fell to 39 percent from 44 percent.
Obama's standing could deteriorate quickly if the economy does not begin to generate jobs and if Washington cannot show it is capable of solving problems, Ipsos pollster Julie Clark said.
"If those things don't happen, Obama will be in for a real challenge in getting re-elected next year," Clark said.
Obama and Republicans have hit an impasse in negotiations to raise America's borrowing limit before the government runs out of money to pay all of its bills on August 2. That could force the government to try to prioritize its payments.
Asked what bills the government should stop paying if the debt limit is not raised, 36 percent listed international creditors like banks and 12 percent listed government departments like agriculture and education.
The sputtering economy and high unemployment are certain to dominate the race for the White House in 2012, and the Republican candidates for the nomination to challenge Obama repeatedly have criticized his economic leadership.
ROMNEY EASILY LEADS BACHMANN
In a head-to-head matchup of the two top declared Republican challengers, Mitt Romney easily leads Michele Bachmann, 40 percent to 23 percent, the poll found.
Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, leads most national polls of the Republican race but Bachmann, a U.S. representative from Minnesota, has made inroads with an appeal to Tea Party activists and social conservatives. Among independent voters only, Romney's lead is just 10 percent.
The poll found more than half of Americans believe the economy is the country's most pressing problem, the first time a public majority has put it at the top of the list since shortly after Obama took office in February 2009.
The survey was taken after a weak jobs report last week showed the U.S. economy is recovering slower than expected. Unemployment rose slightly to 9.2 percent.
"People aren't seeing the jobs that they want to see," Clark said. "One in five people say unemployment is the biggest problem, and there has been no improvement in that."
Talks between Obama and congressional leaders on raising the $14.3 trillion U.S. debt ceiling before an August 2 deadline also have made little progress. Officials have warned failure to raise the limit could derail the economic recovery and endanger the global financial system.
"People are watching these talks and getting a real sense of gridlock and a sense of pessimism about anything getting accomplished in Washington," Clark said.
The number of people listing government spending and the deficit as the most important problem rose to 14 percent in July from 8 percent in October of last year. Republicans have insisted on spending cuts as part of any deal on raising the debt limit. Democrats want tax increases as part of the deal.
The poll of 1,173 adults, including 989 registered voters, was taken on Friday through Monday and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points. Interviews were conducted on both land lines and cell phones, in either English or Spanish.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)