House Speaker Boehner seen in an increasingly negative view, poll finds

April 20, 2011

Negative attitudes about Congress have left their mark on House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) as the legislative process of wheeling and dealing has dominated news from Capitol Hill over the past few weeks.

Three and half months after Boehner claimed the speaker’s gavel, 40 percent of Americans say they disapprove of the way he is handling his job, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News Poll. That compares with 27 percent in mid-January, when he was just two weeks into the office. The new poll found that 43 percent approve of Boehner’s performance.

The poll also shows that more Americans have formed opinions about the speaker: Just 17 percent said they have no opinion about him, compared with a third of Americans who said they had none in January.

Boehner’s allies and strategists privately expressed no surprise at the numbers, given that congressional leaders have been unpopular in the eyes of the American public since the mid-1990s.

Boehner’s current standing is far better than that of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who draws just 33 percent approval in the poll; 49 percent disapprove of Reid’s performance.

And Boehner is not nearly as polarizing as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was at this time last year. In late March 2010, during Pelosi’s last year as House speaker, 42 percent of those polled approved of her performance, with 46 percent disapproving. But just 20 percent “strongly approved” of her performance and 37 percent “strongly disapproved,” according to a Post-ABC poll at the time.

Now, just a third of those polled have strong feelings toward Boehner, with 13 percent strongly approving and 20 percent strongly disapproving of his performance.

Boehner’s honeymoon with the public has ended quickly, after a carefully designed rollout by his advisers to portray the speaker as a plain-spoken Midwesterner who is prone to emotion about patriotism and schoolchildren.

His approval rating pales with Pelosi’s at the early stage of her historic speakership. In mid-April 2007, Pelosi had the approval of 53 percent of Americans, while 35 percent disapproved.

Boehner’s decline comes as Republicans and Democrats in Congress continue to be held in very low esteem. The two parties are about equally disliked: 34 percent approve of Republicans on Capitol Hill, while 63 percent disapprove of their performance; 36 percent approve of Democrats in Congress, while 60 percent disapprove.

Most troubling for Reid and Boehner is that independents have drifted away from both parties, disapproving of congressional Democrats and Republicans by near-equal 2-to-1 margins.

In evaluating his performance leading the Senate, 53 percent of independents disapprove of Reid.

For now, Boehner has stronger support among independents: 45 percent approve of his performance, while 36 percent disapprove. He has been leading the House just 15 weeks; Reid has been leading the Senate for more than four years.

The telephone poll was conducted April 14-17 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults interviewed on conventional or cellular telephones. The margin of sampling error for the full poll is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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