President Obama has taken away Mitt Romney’s longstanding advantage as the candidate voters say is most likely to restore the economy and create jobs, according to the latest poll by The New York Times and CBS News, which found a modest sense of optimism among Americans that White House policies are working.
But while the climate for Mr. Obama has improved since midsummer, and Mr. Romney has failed to shift sentiment decisively in his favor, the poll found that the presidential race is narrowly divided. The outcome could still turn on unexpected events and how the candidates are perceived after their three debates next month.
With their conventions behind them and the general election fully engaged, the Democratic Party is viewed more favorably than the Republican Party. The poll also found more likely voters give an edge to Mr. Obama on foreign policy, Medicare and addressing the challenges of the middle class. The only major issue on which Mr. Romney held an advantage was handling the federal budget deficit.
The nationwide poll was conducted during a turbulent week in the campaign, with a new torrent of television ads from Mr. Romney, a disappointing jobs report for Mr. Obama and both candidates reacting to deadly violence in Egypt, Libya and across the Arab world.
Among those considered most likely to vote, the president was the choice of 49 percent to 46 percent for Mr. Romney, including those who said they were leaning in one direction or another. It is within the survey’s margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points for each candidate.
The president holds a 10-point advantage on who would do a better job handling foreign policy, with 4 in 10 voters very confident of Mr. Obama’s ability to handle an international crisis, compared to about one-quarter who say the same about Mr. Romney. The survey was largely conducted before foreign affairs took on heightened importance when the United States ambassador to Libya and three other Americans there were killed on Tuesday.
While the poll reflects a prevailing sentiment among Mr. Romney’s advisers that he must find a way to change the dynamics of the race, the findings also highlight a lingering discontent running through the electorate. A slim majority of likely voters still disapprove of how Mr. Obama has handled the economy and 7 in 10 rank the economy as fairly bad or very bad.
But with only two weeks before the first wave of early voting begins in some states, the presidential race has taken on a new sense of urgency, the poll found, with enthusiasm increasing among voters. A plea for patience, which Mr. Obama delivered at the Democratic convention, appears to be resonating with some voters.
“I believe the country is going in the right direction, little by little,” Anita Young, 42, an independent voter from Ardmore, Pa., said in a follow-up interview. “Are things moving fast enough? No, of course not, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
The president’s job approval rating of 51 percent among all Americans marks the first time he has surpassed a majority in the poll by The Times and CBS News since immediately after Osama bin Laden was killed, in May 2011. The number of adults who say the country is on the right track has increased to 40 percent, though 54 percent say it is on the wrong track.
The coalition that helped sweep Mr. Obama into office four years ago is at least partly intact. He holds a 12-point advantage among women, while Mr. Romney holds the upper hand among men by 8 percentage points. But independent voters, who supported Mr. Obama by eight percentage points in 2008, are now breaking for Mr. Romney by six percentage points.
The poll found that a majority of voters embrace the president’s vision of a country that emphasizes community and shared responsibility over self-reliance and individual responsibility, a distinction at the core of the debate between the Republican and Democratic tickets about the proper role of government.
But with the nation’s unemployment rate still above 8 percent, a recent spike in gas prices and another impending budget showdown in Washington, a cloud of pessimism still looms, which creates an opening for Mr. Romney among frustrated voters who are looking for a change.