President Joe Biden delivers a speech on infrastructure spending at Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center, Wednesday, March 31, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Views of the nation’s economy are the rosiest they’ve been since the pandemic began more than a year ago, buoyed by Democrats feeling increasingly optimistic as President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package is distributed across the country.

A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs finds 46% of Americans overall now view the economy as good, up from the 37% who felt that way last month. Views of the economy had tanked at the onset of the pandemic in April last year, when 29% said it was in good shape.

Fifty-eight percent of Democrats now describe economic conditions as good, compared with 35% of Republicans. Democratic sentiments about the economy improved after Biden replaced Donald Trump in the White House, with optimism increasing even further after he signed his landmark relief package into law.

Just 15% of Democrats felt positive about the economy in December, but 41% did in February. Among Republicans, positive views plummeted from 67% in December to 35% by February.

Americans might yearn for cooperation between Republicans and Democrats, but they also acknowledge the persistent divide as the economy has begun to heal from the coronavirus.

“I would like to see a lot more cooperation between the two parties,” said Leo Martin, 84, of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and a former community college teacher. “But I’m afraid it’s going to be similar to the last four years with the two parties not working together. I blame this not just on Donald Trump, but on the press that supported Trump and egged him on. I think it was divided before and just got progressively worse.”

Americans’ improved outlook generally reflects the favorable impressions of Biden’s relief package and the mass vaccinations that have allowed more schools, offices and retailers to reopen. Based on economic forecasts, Biden suggested last week that growth this year could top 6% — the strongest performance in 37 years. That level of growth would likely come with enough hiring to boost national morale, potentially softening some of the polarization that has defined U.S. politics for more than a decade.

The poll shows 54% of Americans approve of the economic relief law, while 25% disapprove. An additional 21% say they hold neither opinion. Large majorities approve of many of the law’s components, including vaccination funding, direct payments of $1,400 and extended unemployment insurance, funding for schools to reopen, aid for families and housing payment assistance.

Views are more mixed about the price tag after $4 trillion was previously spent to support the economy as the pandemic caused mass layoffs and business closures. Forty-two percent say the debt-financed law spends about the right amount on relief, but an additional 31% say it spends too much and 26% say it spends too little.

Matt Holland of Guilford, Maine, said his paintball business is down 30% over the year, but he has adapted and survived because he carries no debt. He voted for Trump in 2020 and anticipates a surge in growth as more of the country is vaccinated, but he worries that a rising deficit could hinder the economy in the years to come.

“I’m not one of those believers who says you can print money and the deficit doesn’t matter —eventually, your currency isn’t worth anything,” said Holland, 62.

While Republicans are more likely to say they disapprove of the relief package, they are not significantly hostile to many of its elements despite the opposition by GOP lawmakers. At least two-thirds of Republicans approve of the law’s funding for grants and low-interest loans for small businesses, funding for vaccine distribution and funding for schools to reopen safely.

Overall, 70% of Americans approve of the $1,400 payments sent directly to eligible Americans, including 86% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans.

Michelle Djajich, 34, said the direct payment will help buy new clothes for her four children, who are growing out of just about everything. But she worries that the enhanced unemployment benefits are encouraging people not to work. She has a position open at a Quizno's sandwich shop where she works that pays $10.80 an hour and it's hard to find anyone to hire.

“If people don’t go back to work, all that money is going to be spent, and the economy is still going to be hurting,” said Djajich, who lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

About two-thirds of Americans support funding for mortgage and rent assistance, including roughly 8 in 10 Democrats and about half of Republicans. About 6 in 10 Americans support the extended moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, including three-quarters of Democrats and close to half of Republicans.

Overall, 61% of Americans approve of the way Biden is handling his job as president; 73% approve of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic; and 60% approve of how he is handling the economy. Fewer, 48%, approve of Biden’s handling of the federal budget deficit.

The direct payments from the relief law do appear to be making an impact in people’s lives. Half say they already received the money; a quarter say they expect to receive one.

Among those Americans who say they have received or expect to receive a payment, 33% say most of it will be used to pay bills. An additional 21% say most of the money will pay down debt. About 23% plan to save most of the payment, while 16% intend to increase their spending. Just 3% say they will donate or give it to friends or family.

Skip Kendall, 72, from Naples, Florida, said he appreciated the relief package, but he felt the payments should have been better targeted.

“There was way too many people who got money who didn’t need it — including me,” said Kendall, who put the money into savings. “I’m not going to send it back. But these things should be better directed to the people who needed it.”

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The AP-NORC poll of 1,166 adults was conducted March 26-29 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.