Congress deeply unpopular as economic woes, health-care battle fuel a disapproving mood
By Dan Balz
The long health-care battle and the economy have certainly taken a toll on President Obama and his administration. But the damage has been, if anything, more severe to the Congress.
Never popular with the American people, Congress has seen its image tumble further over the past year. The Democrats' final machinations now underway over health care, on top of the deal-making late last year to push the bill through the Senate, risk inflicting further damage.
An NBC News-Wall Street Journal released earlier this week paints the picture darkly. Seventy-seven percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing -- near a record low point.
Half of the public (51 percent) said they prefer to give a new person a chance to represent them in the House, while only 38 percent said their own House member deserves to be reelected.
Half of the public would vote to replace every member of Congress if they had the chance. Among those who favor this blow-it-up strategy, most said it wouldn't matter to them whether Democrats or Republicans controlled the new House.
Normally, voters have significantly higher opinions of their own representatives than they do of the institution. That's still the case, but less so than in some times past.
Forty-five percent said they approve of the job their House member is doing, while 41 percent said they disapprove. When asked previously, approval of individual members was between 57 and 68 percent.
The Pew Research Center weighed in with its findings on Thursday, reinforcing the conclusion that Congress is the broken branch of government.
The most frequent descriptions for Congress among those surveyed were: "dysfunctional," "corrupt," "self-serving," "inept," "confused," "incompetent," "ineffective" and "lazy." Eight in 10 said Congress isn't working together and while blame is distributed on a partisan basis -- Republicans blame Democrats and vice versa -- independents blame both parties equally.
The leadership comes in for harsh criticism. Just 31 percent approve of the job Democratic congressional leaders are doing and 25 percent say they approve of the job Republican congressional leaders are doing.
But Democratic leaders have taken a much sharper hit than Republican leaders. Their approval rating was 48 percent 13 months ago, while that of the GOP leaders was just 34 percent.
Over the past year, Democratic leaders have slipped 19 points among Democrats -- to 58 percent. Republican leaders are rated even lower by Republicans surveyed -- 49 percent -- but at least can claim their numbers have risen a few points over the past year.
Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who with Democrat Peter Hart conducted the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, said there is "a virulent anti-congressional mood" in the country today that reflects broad economic anxiety across the country. He said the public's wrath is likely to fall most heavily on Democrats, as the party in power, in the fall elections.
"They are in serious jeopardy," he said. Noting that there were "not many positive numbers for Republicans" in the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, he argued that the election year "is moving in a decidedly Republican direction."
His reasoning goes as follows: Republicans in Congress have had a negative image for roughly five years. In contrast, Democrats have been seen negatively by more than 40 percent of the public only five times since the poll began in the early 1990s -- but three of those have been since last December. He called that "a clear sign of where the winds are blowing."
Few Democrats would disagree with that, although there is disagreement over how bad the losses may be for the Democrats. Some forecasters predict Republicans will take over the House and possibly the Senate. Others, in both parties, anticipate sizable Democratic losses, but not yet their control of either chamber.
The president looks good only in comparison to the Congress. Thursday's Gallup tracking showed Obama's approval at 46 percent, with 48 percent disapproving. Wednesday's 46-47 split marked the first time Gallup has shown his disapproval higher than his approval.
Pew also pegged the president's approval rating at just 46 percent, with 43 percent saying they disapprove. That is the lowest figure Pew has recorded in his presidency and reflects overwhelming disapproval among Republicans, a net-negative rating among independents and some recent erosion among Democrats.
That means Democrats in Congress can't count on much help from the president until he begins to turn around his approval ratings. Whether they're able to do much for themselves is an even more pressing question. As the final chapter of the health-care debate unfolds on Capitol Hill, the stakes couldn't be higher.
March 18, 2010; 12:35 PM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency , Dan Balz's Take
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