People are especially pessimistic about the future president's influence over jobs, according to the Associated Press-GfK poll. Asked how much impact the November winner will have on unemployment, 6 in 10 gave answers ranging from slim to none.
Yet the candidates, the polls and the pundits agree -- the economy is the issue of 2012. Can either man convince voters that he would set things right?
James Gray of Snow Hill, N.C., is skeptical.
"It doesn't look to me like the economy or nothing gets better no matter who you've got up there," Gray said. "I don't know why it is."
A retired policeman, Gray plans to vote for Romney and thinks the Republican might win. But he doesn't have much hope that would improve things for people like him, living on a fixed income. "Every time you go to the grocery store the prices have gone up," he said.
Years of disappointing economic news following the 2007-2009 recession have deflated American optimism. And worries about financial troubles in Europe and congressional gridlock at home hang over the future. Two-thirds of people still describe the economy as poor. The same number -- 31 percent -- think unemployment will grow worse over the next year as predict it will ease up.
"Right now it's so bad," said Maria Fisher of Timber Pines, Fla. "I wish everything was better."
Fisher, a preschool teacher at the YMCA, favors Romney because he's a Republican and a successful businessman. She's ready "to give him the chance to fix all these problems." But she doubts there's much the president can do.
Lots of Obama supporters feel the same way.
"The office of the president as a single person doesn't have as much influence as we generally attribute to them," said Jeff Guertin, a mechanical engineer in Bedford, N.H., who backs Obama.
Guertin said a president is limited by Congress' willingness to go along with his ideas, as well as all sorts of other factors, including world events, that affect whether the U.S. economy grows or shrinks.
Despite the dominance of economic issues in the presidential race, Americans are evenly split over whether the man living in the White House in 2013 will bring significant change to the overall economy.
A majority of those surveyed -- 55 percent -- say the winner will have from "just some impact" to "no impact" on the nation's huge budget deficits.
Those with little confidence that the winner can fix things are also more pessimistic overall -- just 32 percent of them think the economy will improve in the coming year. In contrast, among those who expect a substantial impact from the winner, almost half think the economy will get better.
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to predict that the winner's imprint will be felt: 58 percent say the election's outcome will affect the economy overall. Yet fewer than half of Republicans foresee much impact on joblessness.
Everett Hickman, an Obama supporter, said both campaigns overplay how much a president can do.
"The federal government has some influence over the economy," said Hickman, a retired radio news reporter living in Charlotte, N.C. "It doesn't have the kind of push-pull, click-clack control that some people seem to think, or pretend to think."
The Associated Press-GfK Poll was conducted June 14-18 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,007 adults nationwide. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.