Poll finds Americans in an anti-incumbent mood as midterm elections near

Speaking at a town hall meeting in Ottumwa, Iowa, President Barack Obama criticized Senate Republicans for continuing to block debate on a bill to impose greater financial controls on the financial industry. (April 27)
By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Members of Congress face the most anti-incumbent electorate since 1994, with less than a third of all voters saying they are inclined to support their representatives in November, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Dissatisfaction is widespread, crossing party lines, ideologies and virtually all groups of voters. Less than a quarter of independents and just three in 10 Republicans say they're leaning toward backing an incumbent this fall. Even among Democrats, who control the House, the Senate and the White House, opinion is evenly divided on the question.

"I'm not really happy right now with anybody" in Washington, Sandy Davis, 64, a Republican from Decatur, Ill. said in a follow-up interview. Although she expressed "mixed feelings" about a fresh crop of lawmakers, she added: "When the country was founded, those guys were all pretty new at it. How bad would it be?"

Still, for President Obama and his party, there are some positive signs in the poll. The public trusts Democrats more than Republicans to handle the major problems facing the country by a double-digit margin, giving Democrats a bigger lead than they held two months ago, when Congress was engaged in the long endgame over divisive health-care legislation. A majority continues to see Obama as "just about right" ideologically, despite repeated GOP efforts to define the president as outside the mainstream.

Those polled also say they trust Obama over Republicans in Congress to deal with the economy, health care and, by a large margin, financial regulatory reform. And the president continues to get positive marks on his overall job performance, with, for the first time since the fall, a majority of independents approving. Disaffection among independents with Obama's policies has been one of the major shifts in public opinion over the past year, making this small movement one to monitor over the coming months.

These shifts may be modest, but they come at a time when Obama and his fellow Democrats have been on the offensive, after months of playing defense on health care. The debate over financial reform in the Senate has given Democrats the opportunity to paint the opposition as defenders of Wall Street and unpopular financial institutions, while the passage of the health-care law has freed the White House from a burdensome issue that had taken a significant toll on the president.

"Health care is probably the latest thing that has made me concerned," said Vincent Riley, 46, who lives near Columbus, Ohio. Although Riley says he still supports Obama, for whom he voted in 2008, he's concerned generally about the lack of progress in Washington. "I think they are spending too much time going back and forth and not working together to get the job done."

High deficit, low numbers

On both the economy and health care, the country divides down the middle on Obama's stewardship of the White House, a slight improvement from the negative ratings he has received on these central issues over the past few months, although independents still tilt negative. The president's worst rating in the poll comes, again, on the federal budget deficit, where four in 10 say they approve of his performance. This is also the issue on which the GOP comes closest to Obama: 41 percent of respondents say they trust Republicans more here; 45 percent say the president.

While the budget deficit may be a weak point for Obama, his strategists have a ready pushback: Nearly three times as many Americans blame former president George W. Bush for the size of the shortfall as point the finger at Obama. Public perceptions on the state of the economy are roughly the same, with 59 percent blaming Bush for continued weakness and 25 percent finding Obama more culpable. Even about three in 10 Republicans blame Bush more than Obama for the deficit and the state of the economy.

Pointing in the opposite direction, however, are several other findings in the poll. On one of the major issues likely to be debated between now and November -- the size and scope of the federal government -- there's a great disconnect between what people say they want and their perceptions of Obama.

While a majority of Americans favor a smaller government with fewer services, more than three-quarters say they see the president as favoring a bigger government with more services.

To Rick, 46, an independent from Loudoun County (who asked that his last name not be used), Obama has failed to govern as a centrist: "This does not seem like the middle to me. I'm thinking maybe he doesn't care about another four years, just about his agenda."

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