The Gallup economic confidence index reached -20 in March, up from -22 in February — its highest level since Gallup daily tracking began in January 2008.

The index has increased for seven straight months after falling to -52 during the federal debt crisis last August.

The index rates Americans' feelings on current economic conditions and their perceptions of whether the economy is getting better or worse.

Increasing optimism about the future direction of the economy accounts for the surge confidence since last summer. The economic outlook component of the index improved by 47 points to -12 from -59 in August 2011. Perceptions of current economic conditions improved by a more modest 18 points to -28 from -46.

Economic confidence among Democrats remained positive in March at +9, compared with +8 the prior month. Republicans' and independents' confidence remained in negative territory, at -44 and -25, respectively.

Monday's positive report about U.S. manufacturing could also help bolster confidence.

Economic activity in the manufacturing sector expanded in March for the 32nd consecutive month, and the overall economy grew for the 34th consecutive month, said the nation's supply executives in the latest report from the Institute for Supply Management, which surveys factories on new orders, production, employment and inventories.

Gas prices continue to rise, however, and could affect the nation's modest economic recovery as they approach the key psychological level of $4 a gallon. Prices last surpassed $4 in July 2008 when they reached a record price of $4.11.

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will report the latest unemployment numbers. While the economy has been adding jobs, the number of jobs created hasn't been enough to budge the 8.3% unemployment rate for several months.

Last week the BLS reported that the number of states with double-digit unemployment rates declined in February to three from nine states in February 2011.