RIGHT TRACK/WRONG TRACK…. President Obama’s approval rating in the new AP poll is at 64%, which largely in line with other recent national surveys. The more interesting number, however, relates to public optimism.

For the first time in years, more Americans than not say the country is headed in the right direction, a sign that Barack Obama has used the first 100 days of his presidency to lift the public’s mood and inspire hopes for a brighter future.

Intensely worried about their personal finances and medical expenses, Americans nonetheless appear realistic about the time Obama might need to turn things around, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. It shows most Americans consider their new president to be a strong, ethical and empathetic leader who is working to change Washington.

The AP poll found that 48% of Americans say the country is headed in the right direction, up eight points from February, while 44% believe the nation is on the wrong track.

That’s obviously pretty close, but it’s nevertheless the first time in more than five years than the “right direction” number topped the “wrong direction” number. Even that last instance — shortly after Saddam Hussein was captured — was something of an aberration, and widespread pessimism about the country’s direction has been the norm for the last six years.

The recent trend, however, has been an upswing in the public’s mood. In October 2008, an AP poll found that 17% of Americans believed we were on the right track. After Obama’s election victory, that number grew to 36%. In February, it reached 40%, and stands at 48% now.

As I was reading the results, I kept thinking that the president’s ability to maintain this kind of optimism is certainly susceptible to change. It’s not, after all, as if robust economic growth is right around the corner. Based on all available evidence, the nation’s economy still has quite a ways to go. If the “right track” number is up because of a percetion that the economy is improving, a lot of people are likely to grow frustrated when improvements come slowly.

Then again, the AP poll also found that seven in 10 Americans “say it is reasonable to expect it to take longer than a year to see the results of Obama’s economic policies.”

That’s quite a bit of leeway for a president to enjoy during a crisis.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.