Obama's approval rate ticks up, but US mood still grim: Poll

As they look beyond the dismal 2014 election campaign, Americans see a few positive signs—and look forward to a fresh start in the next presidential race, according to a new NBC/News-Wall Street Journal poll.

The number of Americans who say the country is heading in the right direction has ticked up—only 27 percent but still higher than a month ago.

So has the number of those approving of President Barack Obama's job performance—to 45 percent, the president's highest in more than a year. So has the number approving of Congress—to 16 percent. So has the number predicting the economy will improve in the next year—to 31 percent.

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The dominant mood in the country remains negative, but "there are a few rays of optimism," said Democratic pollster Fred Yang, who helped conduct the survey.

Americans American flag
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

And now that voters and prospective candidates are beginning to look toward 2016, the poll suggests, Republicans could be the beneficiaries. Fully 71 percent say the next president should "take an approach different than Barack Obama has" in the White House. That's virtually identical to the way voters felt in early 2007 as Obama entered the 2008 race to succeed Republican President George W. Bush.

"This is an electorate—by a large margin—looking for change," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who worked with Yang on the poll.

The presidential field remains unsettled. Half of the respondents said they could see themselves supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady, Democratic senator and secretary of state. But 48 percent said they could not.

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As for Republican prospects, 31 percent said they could see themselves support former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. But 57 percent said they could not. Other top Republicans, such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, were also in negative territory.

On the recent furor over relations between law enforcement and African-American communities, 35 percent of Americans said a grand jury's decision not to pursue charges against a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in the shooting death of a black young man had decreased their confidence in the legal system; 18 percent said it had increased their confidence, while 45 percent said the decision had no effect on their confidence.

A similar grand jury decision in Staten Island, New York—into the death of an African-American man that was captured on video—took a larger toll on public confidence. A 45 percent plurality said the decision had decreased confidence in the system, while only 8 percent said it had increased confidence. Some 43 percent said it had no effect.

At the same time that confidence in the economy is edging up, so is the prevalence of a comparatively new kind of economic crime linked to technology. Some 15 percent of Americans say they or a member of their household has been victimized in the past year by computer or Internet fraud or hacking. That's nearly double the number who responded that way 10 years ago, underscoring the breadth of a problem that in recent months has rocked corporate giants such as Target and Sony Pictures.

One bright spot for American families has been the fall in gas prices. Some 50 percent of Americans say the drop has had a significant impact on their families.

The telephone poll of 1,000 adults, conducted Dec. 10-14, carries a margin for error of 3.1 percentage points.