USA Today leads the analysis of its joint poll with Gallup on the news that people have become more optimistic on the economy, and that’s good news for Barack Obama.  More people think Obama will win re-election as well, although at least so far, USAT doesn’t say whether Obama actually leads in the poll.  But the internals show Mitt Romney gaining traction, and his favorability now equals that of the incumbent.

Let’s start with the optimism, which is significantly tempered:

Americans may be downbeat about today’s economy, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, but they are increasingly optimistic that things are about to get better for the nation and themselves.

Though an overwhelming 71% rate economic conditions as poor, a 58% majority predict they will be good a year from now. While those surveyed are inclined to say they are worse off financially than a year ago, nearly two-thirds say they think they’ll be better off this time next year.

The assessment of personal finances already is on the upswing. More than a third report they are better off than they were a year ago — the highest number since before the economic meltdown in 2008. (They’re still outnumbered by the four in 10 who say they’re worse off, though.)

That’s not much of an improvement.  A third of voters feeling better than a year ago means two-thirds who don’t.  As Obama himself might put it, those are some significant headwinds, especially since hiring and production have slowed down coming into the spring.

Romney’s standing has improved as the party unites behind him as the nominee, and his favorability — the personal sense of the candidate — now stands roughly equal to that of Obama:

Since becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, Romney’s favorable-unfavorable rating has jumped to 50%-41%, his best ever and in the same neighborhood as Obama’s 52%-46% standing.

That suggests that the months-long effort to paint Romney as a private-equity vampire who banished his dog to roof-riding torment isn’t exactly succeeding.  The more people get to know Romney, the more they seem to like him.  Furthermore, there seems to be slightly more upside for Romney than Obama at this point.

However, the election won’t get decided on charm.  The key takeaway:

In the poll, 55% say the economy would get better over the next four years if Romney was elected, compared with 46% who say it would improve if Obama was re-elected. Twenty-seven percent say the economy would get worse in a Romney first term, compared with 37% who say that of an Obama second term.

Consider that with this nugget, and it’s starting to look like Republican momentum:

For the first time during this campaign cycle, the GOP has an advantage in congressional elections. By 50%-44%, those surveyed say they’re likely to vote for the Republican congressional candidate. The two parties were tied in the USA TODAY Poll in February, and Democrats had a 7-point advantage last August.

This election will be about the economy, no matter how many shiny objects Team Obama strews out on the campaign stump to distract from it.  A gathering momentum for Republicans in Congress also means momentum toward the top of the ticket, and potentially a loss of enthusiasm among Democrats.  Put those together, and the proposal that the economy will help Obama is pretty well demolished.

Note that USA Today didn’t release any of the internals on this poll, which means we may have to revisit these results if Gallup publishes them.  It’s also very much worth noting that this was a poll of general-population adults, not registered or likely voters — a sample type that usually produces more sympathetic results to Democrats.  The reality of likely voters is likely to favor Romney and Republicans even more.