President Barack Obama faces significant doubts from the American public about the war in Afghanistan and his handling of foreign policy, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. At the same time, he has shored up support for his top domestic priority following this month's health-care speech to Congress. The poll of more than 1,000 adults, taken within the past week, shows growing optimism that the economy has begun to turn around. And the president's overall approval rating has held steady at 51% since August, as his message on health care has clearly begun to penetrate. But the survey also has some strong warnings for Mr. Obama. For the first time, independent voters -- who delivered Mr. Obama the White House and Democrats control of Congress -- disapprove of the job he is doing, by 46% compared with the 41% who approve. In July, 49% of independents approved of the president, against 38% who disapproved. New doubts about the president have coincided with new hopes for Republicans, who appeared flattened by the election nearly a year ago. As the 2010 election cycle heats up, independent voters now favor Republican control of Congress by four percentage points. An exclusive WSJ/NBC poll finds renewed support for President Barack Obama and his health-care reform effort. But WSJ's Jerry Seib says backing for the war in Afghanistan is fading. "For a party walloped two cycles in a row with independents, I think those are very important stories," said William McInturff, a partner at the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, who conducts the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll with Democratic pollster Peter Hart. As Mr. Obama ramps up his focus on diplomacy this week -- at the United Nations General Assembly in New York and then hosting a summit of world leaders in Pittsburgh -- approval of the job he is doing on foreign policy has dropped to 50% from 57% in July. Americans are pessimistic about the prospects of victory in Afghanistan; 59% say they are feeling less confident that the war will come to a successful conclusion. And 51% say they would oppose sending more troops to the conflict. "No matter what we do, it's not going to be the right thing," said Rick Culotta, a 46-year-old Republican in Metairie, La., who responded to the poll. On the economy, Americans aren't euphoric, but the mood is clearly improving. Nearly one-quarter of the poll's respondents said they feel satisfied with the state of the economy, which marks a 10-point jump from July. Thirty-five percent of respondents now believe the economy has pretty much hit bottom, compared with 27% who thought so in July. Track support for Obama overall and on economic and foreign policy since the start of his term. Mr. Hart, the Democratic pollster, said Americans don't so much think the economy has turned around as they believe their fortunes "are less bad than they were." Rising optimism about the economy generally helps a sitting president. But the poll shows some ambivalence about Mr. Obama's economic prescriptions. By a wide margin -- 45% to 34% -- Americans said his economic-stimulus plan was a bad idea, though by 46% to 43%, they said without it, the recession would have been worse. In February, as the president was pressing for his stimulus plan, 51% of Americans said the government should do more to solve problems and meet the needs of people. Just 40% said the government was doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. This month, 49% said government is doing too much, while 45% said government should be doing more. "The government is just too, too big," said Gene Garcia, 68 years old, a Democrat and Obama voter in Arvada, Colo. "Some things they have to leave to the states." Meanwhile, the intensifying debate in Washington over how to handle Afghanistan mirrors divisions in the country at large. Almost half the country, 49%, sees the war in Afghanistan as somewhat or very unsuccessful; 46% see success, but only 8% see it as very successful. Even when reminded of the nation's potential vulnerability to losing the war started to rout al Qaeda, a plurality was unmoved; 45% said they were most concerned that the nation would invest lives and resources into the war with little to show for it; 44% said they were more concerned that the nation wouldn't do enough to confront al Qaeda and the Taliban and would be more vulnerable because of it. A Taliban victory "means they could set up bases and launch new attacks," said Jay Vosburgh, 53, an independent voter from Plano, Texas, who voted for Republican John McCain and is now favorable to Mr. Obama. But he has still had enough. "They're trying to fight al Qaeda, but it's probably gone on too long." At the same time, only 38% favor an immediate and orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, while 55% oppose a pullout. That is reminiscent of the public-opinion stalemate that faced lawmakers on Iraq when that war began going poorly. On the key issue of health care, a revitalized effort by Mr. Obama to drive home his message appears to be having an impact. As a priority for the federal government, job creation and economic growth are still on top, with 30% saying those should be the primary task of Washington. But that is down from 38% in July. Meanwhile, health care has jumped to the top priority of 21% of Americans, from 14%. "It's broke. We need to fix it," William B. Cole, a 66-year-old retiree in New Castle, Va., said of the health-care system. He said Mr. Obama's speech reinforced his support. Last month, 47% disapproved of the president's handling of health care, versus 41% who approved. Now, those numbers are about even, with 45% approving and 46% disapproving. More people still believe the president's health-care plan is a bad idea than believe it is a good one, 41% to 39%. In July and August, 42% said it was a bad idea while 36% thought it was a good idea. But 45% said it would be better to pass the plan than stick to the status quo; 39% favor keeping the current health system. The president's effort to reassure Americans that his plan wouldn't harm them appears to be working; 53% say Mr. Obama's health plan will either not affect the quality of their health care or will improve it. Only 36% said quality would get worse. In August, 40% said quality would get worse. The improvement is relatively modest, Mr. McInturff said, especially given the president's barnstorming the nation, his address to Congress two weeks ago and his media blitz. "A president cannot do much more than that," he said. Democrats, meanwhile, retain a political advantage over the Republicans. Nearly a year after handing control of Washington to Democrats, Americans still like the majority party better than the opposition: 41% feel positively about Democrats and 28% feel positively toward Republicans, largely unchanged since July. But the poll has some encouraging results for Republicans a little more than a year before the midterm elections. Republicans have gotten closer to the Democrats as the party that Americans want to see in control of Congress, 40% to 43%. In July, Democrats held a seven-point edge, 46% to 39%. (WSJ)