WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama gets mediocre marks for his handling of the economy and Mitt Romney easily outpolls his Republican rivals in an Associated Press survey of economists.

The economy, and who bears responsibility for it, is likely to be a decisive issue when voters to go the polls next November.

The economy is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession of 2007-09. The housing market remains weak and a debt crisis in Europe threatens growth in 2012.

The unemployment rate is at a recession-level 8.6 percent, up from 7.8 percent when Obama took office in January 2009.

That month the recession was already more than a year old.

Half of the 36 economists who responded to a Dec. 14-20 AP survey rated Obama's economic policies "fair," and 13 called them "poor."

Five of the economists gave the president "good" marks; none rated him as "excellent."

The economists' criticisms varied.

Some said Obama was distracted by his health care overhaul. Others said his $862 billion stimulus program was poorly designed.

Still others faulted him for not pushing for an even bigger stimulus when the economy proved weaker than expected.

The AP economists expect economic growth to pick up to 2.4 percent next year, which would be an improvement from the under-2 percent growth expected for 2011.

But the economists foresee little improvement -- a dip to 8.4 percent -- in the unemployment rate by Election Day.

Asked which of the Republican presidential candidates would do the best job managing the economy, two-thirds of the economists named Romney and one chose Newt Gingrich. The rest didn't pick anyone.

Allen Sinai, president of Decision Economics, said Romney, who ran a private equity firm before turning to politics, is the "hands down" choice among Republican presidential contenders squaring off in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.

"Romney's a technocrat," Sinai said. "He's not an ideologue. He has a history in the real world of business."

The Iowa presidential caucuses, which kick the GOP nominating process into high gear, are Tuesday, and polls show Romney in a strong position.

Romney has based his campaign on the notion that he has the best chance of beating Obama on the economy because of his private-sector experience.

Most of the economists surveyed were from banks and other financial firms, independent consultancies and academia.

Some said the Obama administration didn't push hard enough for more government spending or tax cuts to stimulate growth.

"They've generally tried to take the right kinds of measures but have often failed to lead with enough vigor to overcome political obstacles," said William Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Financial Services.

Others said the president tried to do too much, especially by pushing early for legislation to overhaul the nation's health care system instead of focusing on policies to promote growth and create jobs.