Poll: Budget impasse cements public’s disapproval of Washington

March 15, 2011

The early battles in Washington this year have cemented the public’s disapproval of the political system and the country’s leadership, with confidence in congressional Republicans sagging and majorities disapproving of how President Obama is handling top domestic issues, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

In a sweeping indicator of dissatisfaction with Washington, just 26 percent of Americans say they are optimistic about “our system of government and how well it works,” a low point in polls dating to 1974. This gloomy assessment is shared by Democrats and Republicans, even as they agree on little else.

Large majorities in the poll say a partial shutdown of the federal government would be a “bad thing,” but each side squarely blames the other for not compromising in the budget negotiations. Eighty-nine percent of Democrats say Republicans in Congress are not doing enough to strike a deal with the Obama administration, and 81 percent of Republicans see the president as intransigent.

Congress and the White House are approaching another deadline this week to resolve their stalemate over funding the government for the rest of the fiscal year. Obama said Friday that an additional stopgap measure might be necessary before the sides can reach a compromise. But that only forestalls a potentially more contentious fight over next year’s budget.

The dividing lines are clear: On the question of finding the right balance between slashing unneeded government spending and continuing essential functions, 43 percent side with the president, 42 percent with the GOP. While 41 percent of Americans say big cuts in federal spending are likely to spur job growth, about as many, 45 percent, say such a move is more apt to result in job losses.

When it comes to dealing with issue No. 1, the economy, Obama has an advantage: 46 percent say they put more faith in the president, 34 percent say so about congressional Republicans. Obama has a similar 12-point lead on the question of who better understands the economic problems people face, and a nine-point edge on dealing with the deficit.

Among those who say a government shutdown would be harmful, about twice as many say they would hold the GOP, rather than the president, responsible. A similar question two weeks ago showed that about as many said they would blame Obama as the congressional Republicans for a such a stoppage.

On the economy, trust in the GOP among independents dropped from 42 percent in January to 29 percent in the new poll.

But Obama has not greatly benefited from that decline. Majorities — including most political independents — continue to say they disapprove of the president’s performance on the economy and the budget deficit.

Obama’s overall approval rating stands at 51 percent, down slightly from January, with 45 percent saying they disapprove of the job he is doing. Among independents, half say they approve of the way he is conducting his presidency. Obama spent the bulk of 2010 below the 50 percent mark among this key segment.

About three-quarters of independents say they disapprove of the way Congress is doing its work, a figure nearly as high as it was in the fall, when independents were turning out to put Republicans back in control of the House. Among all Americans, disapproval of Congress is at 69 percent, suggesting that the GOP’s majority in the House and its enhanced numbers in the Senate have done little to alter public perceptions of the institution.

The president has been faulted for not taking a higher-profile leadership position on the budget, a criticism he has rejected. When people were asked who they see taking a stronger leadership role in Washington, 46 percent said Republicans in Congress and 39 percent named the president — a tilt in the GOP’s direction since December.

Still, that leaves Obama in a stronger position when compared with President Bill Clinton after Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress in 1994. In the spring of 1995, two-thirds of all Americans saw congressional Republicans in the dominant leadership role.

This year, Obama also faces a divided Republican base: Among self-identified Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who describe themselves as “very conservative,” 61 percent say a government shutdown would be a positive development; 58 percent of those who are less conservative or moderate disagree.

This telephone poll was conducted March 10 to 13 among a random national sample of 1,005 adults. The results from the full poll have a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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