At first blush, it appears the new McClatchy-Marist poll will not warm any hearts in the West Wing. While most Americans have a favorable opinion of President Obama, the public is deeply unsatisfied with the nation’s most important issue — a 58% majority disapproves of the president’s handling of the economy, and only 37% approve. It’s the worst rating of Obama’s presidency to date.

And yet, the same McClatchy-Marist poll shows the president leading all of his Republican challengers in hypothetical match-ups. Why? It may have something to do with the fact that as frustrated as Americans are, they’re not blaming Obama for the mess.

There were glimmers of hope for Obama in the poll. Fifty percent of voters said they had favorable impressions of him, while 44 percent didn’t, and by 2-1 Americans said that today’s economic conditions mostly were something the president inherited rather than the result of his own policies. […]

[V]oters don’t necessarily blame him for the economy. Sixty-one percent said he mostly inherited the economic conditions, including 30 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of independents. The recession began in December 2007, when George W. Bush was president.

The results are pretty similar to an NBC/WSJ poll released two weeks ago, which showed a fairly small number of Americans holding Obama responsible for “the country’s current economic conditions,” and actually blaming George W. Bush in much larger numbers.

Indeed, that poll asked, “When you think about the current economic conditions, do you feel that this is a situation that Barack Obama has inherited or is this a situation his policies are mostly responsible for?” A large 62% majority said he inherited the mess — roughly identical to the new McClatchy-Marist results.

This is no doubt one of the driving factors behind the “he made it worse” push from leading Republicans. The GOP knows Americans don’t blame Obama for the weak economy, so the party has to convince voters they were actually better off during the 2008 crash — an insane idea that’s easily disproven.

The larger point is, people are frustrated and pessimistic, but they don’t necessarily see President Obama as the culprit. Whether this keeps up remains to be seen, but the public’s attitude on this issue will be critical in deciding the 2012 election.

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Steve Benen

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.