A spring thaw, or a return to winter? Attitudes about Washington

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Article Highlights

  • A few polls from 2013 had Congress' approval rating below 10 percent.

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  • Obama’s approval rating declined in each quarter in 2013 matching his ratings with G.W. Bush's at the same point in his presidency.

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  • Congress’s rating has inched up to 15 percent in Gallup’s latest.

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  • The movement we’re seeing in new polls about Washington is a matter of inches, not yards.

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Partisan sniping in the fall over a government shutdown and the rocky rollout of the Healthcare.gov website pushed Congress’s ratings to heretofore unknown depths.  A few polls from 2013 had the body’s rating below 10 percent. While Democrats in Congress consistently fared better than Republicans, neither party had poll ratings that were anything to brag about. President Obama’s approval rating declined in each quarter in 2013, putting his marks in the same general range as George W. Bush’s dismal ratings at that point in his presidency.

There is mixed evidence from new polls on the country’s mood now. Congress’s rating has inched up to 15 percent in Gallup’s latest, and the President’s first quarter average rating is slightly above his 2013 ratings. The latest measurement of consumer attitudes from the University of Michigan/Thomson Reuters notes that its monthly confidence index has been higher only two other times since 2007. Fifty-six percent expect home prices to rise in their area this year, says Gallup, the highest response since 2011. In an early April Gallup survey, nearly half, 48 percent, described their personal financial situation as excellent or good, up from 42 percent in 2009.

But the late April ABC News/Washington Post poll tells another story. President Obama’s approval rating is the lowest ever for these pollsters by a single percentage point. Only 41 percent approve of the job he’s doing. While the pollsters didn’t ask a question about congressional approval, only 22 percent said they were inclined to re-elect their representative this fall. A dismal 29 percent described the state of the nation’s economy as excellent or good, while 71 percent described it as not so good or poor. The pollsters didn’t ask about people’s personal economic situation, and those answers are usually more positive than views about the nation as a whole.

Which picture is correct?  We believe both are true and that we are likely to see poll numbers moving up and down for some time. The public is a lagging indicator, slow to acknowledge improvement in economic conditions, and, after what the country has been through in the past five years, unlikely to believe that it will last. If the public mood improves in the coming months, the explanation could be that we’ve had a period of relative quiet in Washington.

People almost always tell pollsters that government is doing too many things that are better left to business and individuals. Several pollsters regularly ask a question like this, and the data are clear. In November 2013, for example, 63 percent gave that response to CBS News pollsters. Only a third said government should be doing more. But Americans also tell pollsters that they want the government in Washington to do many things. Most people in Washington, who come to town with the intention of getting things done, focus on the latter sentiment, ignoring the broader viewpoint. Pundits lament that Congress isn’t addressing problems, and they excoriate “do nothing” Congresses. They deplore gridlock and partisan argument, both of which seem commonplace these days.

But there are times when the public has seen and heard enough from Washington, and last fall was one of them. Congress’s average approval rating in 2013 in Gallup’s data was 14 percent. The average has been below 20 percent in each of the past four years.  Only two other years, 1979 and 1992, saw average annual congressional ratings below 20 percent—and both of those years coincided with periods of deep economic pessimism.

The movement we’re seeing in new polls about Washington is a matter of inches, not yards. The lead stories in the media in recent weeks haven’t been about Washington, but instead about a missing airliner, ominous rumblings in Ukraine, a Korean ferryboat that sank with hundreds of students on board, and of course, that hardy favorite, the weather. Obviously a lot is going on in Washington but it may not be aggravating the public to the same degree it did last fall. Spring has sprung in most places, the baseball season has begun, and Americans are looking forward to summer sun. Don’t expect attitudes about government as a whole to improve much – the negative perceptions are too deep.  Nor should we expect feelings about Democratic or Republican politicians to improve significantly. A period of relative calm and a few solid jobs reports could signal a thaw.  Otherwise, we’ll have another blast of winter. Stay tuned for weather reports.

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Karlyn
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Jennifer K.
Marsico

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