By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Americans' confidence in the way the country is going has slumped to a two-year low in the last month, and one pollster blamed soaring gas prices.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Wednesday the proportion of people who believe the United States is on the wrong track rose seven points to 64 percent from February, in a fresh challenge to President Barack Obama.
It was the highest number of people in an Ipsos poll who think the country on the wrong track since Obama took office in January 2009. The survey comes as many indicators show an improving U.S. economy.
Ipsos pollster Cliff Young said the rating was a direct result of gasoline prices that have risen sharply in recent weeks amid tumult in North Africa and the Middle East.
"We are moving into a scenario in the near-term that is much more uncertain given the issue of gas prices," he said. "Gas prices specifically are things that affect people's pocketbooks and have an immediate impact."
U.S. retail gasoline prices spiked more than 10 percent over the past two weeks to an average of $3.52 a gallon, the second largest two-week rise on record. Crude oil prices have shot up due to the violence in Libya that has cut that country's production by two-thirds while sanctions have all but halted its exports.
Voter discontent at Obama, who will seek re-election next year, could put pressure on him to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The White House says dipping into the reserve is an option in response to the prices but has shown little inclination to actually do so.
The surging oil prices forced analysts to raise their U.S. inflation forecasts in a separate Reuters poll on Wednesday.
Obama's job approval rating dropped from last month to 49 percent from 51 percent, a statistically insignificant change.
Young said Obama's position is relatively stable but that he "could go through a rough patch" for a while as a result of the spike in gasoline prices.
OBAMA'S 2012 CHANCES
Obama's approval among independent voters who he will need for his 2012 re-election drive took a sharp dive, to 37 percent from 47 percent, the poll found.
Independents fled Democrats in congressional elections last November, enabling Republicans to win the House of Representatives and make gains in the Senate.
In speeches with an eye on re-election, Obama has been talking up the need for compromise in Washington, the kind of rhetoric that appeals to independents.
"There are going to be times where we've got to try to find common ground to solve problems. Not everything is a fight. Not everything has to be a battle to the death," he told a Boston fund-raiser on Tuesday.
The poll showed the slow-starting Republican race to find a challenger to Obama in 2012 is wide open. Many prominent Republicans are planning campaigns but none of them have yet taken the plunge.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has a 36 percent favorable rating while former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has a long way to go to achieve name recognition, with 59 percent saying they "don't know" what they think of him.
Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich has the best name recognition, with only 26 percent saying they "don't know" when asked about him.
Weighing in on the Washington budget debate, 59 percent of Americans prefer to cut existing programs while 30 percent would rather raise taxes to reduce deficit spending.
And they prefer to cut defense spending rather than programs that affect them more directly like Medicare and Social Security.
The poll of 1040 adults, including 776 registered voters, was taken Thursday through Sunday. It has a margin of error of 3.1 percent for all adults and 3.5 percent for registered voters.
(Additional reporting by Alistair Bell, editing by Philip Barbara)