In poll, many still skeptical of GOP

By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; A01

Republicans may have made major gains in the November elections, but they have yet to win the hearts and minds of the American people, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The midterm elections - in which Republicans gained 63 seats to take control of the House and added six seats to their Senate minority - were widely seen as a rebuke to President Obama. Still, the public trusts Obama marginally more than they do congressional Republicans to deal with the country's main problems in the coming years, 43 percent to 38 percent.

The poll suggests that the election, while perhaps a vote against the status quo, was not a broad mandate for Republicans and their plans. The survey also underscores the degree to which Americans are conflicted about who they think is setting the agenda in Washington.

The president's narrow advantage is a striking contrast to the public's mood at this time in 1994 and 2006, the last two midterm election years when one or both chambers of Congress changed hands.

After Democrats won back the House and the Senate four years ago, they had a large, double-digit lead over President George W. Bush when it came to big issues. Similarly, after the GOP's 1994 landslide, people expressed far more confidence in congressional Republicans than they did in President Bill Clinton.

In the new poll, just 41 percent of respondents say the GOP takeover of the House is a "good thing." About 27 percent say it is a "bad thing," and 30 percent say it won't make any difference. Most continue to say that the Republicans in Congress are not doing enough to compromise with Obama on important issues.

At this time in 1994, six in 10 Americans said the GOP had taken a stronger leadership role in Washington, while just one in four said Clinton was firmly in charge. In the new poll, Americans are about evenly split between Obama and the Republicans in Congress on this question.

The public is also divided down the middle when it comes to the top issue: About 45 percent say they trust the GOP when it comes to the economy; 44 percent side with Obama. In the wake of the 1994 elections, Republicans held a sizable, 23-point advantage over Clinton on the economy. The new poll also has even splits between Obama and the GOP on taxes and dealing with the threat of terrorism.

That may be grounds for the kind of negotiations that resulted in the compromise over taxes and unemployment benefits that is now making its way through the lame-duck session of Congress.

A red flag for the GOP

Even as Republicans are determined to fulfill their campaign promises to reduce spending, repeal the new health-care law and in other ways block the president's agenda, the public's ambivalence serves as a warning that the GOP will not have a free hand in the new Congress.

Obama maintains double-digit leads over Republicans in two big areas - helping the middle class and health-care reform. The GOP has a significant edge on only one issue tested in the poll: When it comes to dealing with the federal budget deficit, Republicans in Congress are up eight points.

But while Republicans are more trusted on the issue, Americans believe that the president is more genuine in wanting to reduce the deficit. More than two in three say Obama is sincere in his commitment to deficit reduction, while only a bare majority say the same for congressional Republicans.

Even so, 55 percent of all Americans say they disapprove of the job Obama is doing on the deficit, and he has not had majority approval on the issue since the 100-day mark of his presidency in late April 2009. Most - 54 percent - disapprove of Obama's work on the economy. But in terms of his overall job performance, it's a nearly even divide: 49 percent approval, 47 percent disapproval.

Independents, who played a major role in delivering the House to the Republicans, also split about evenly on the president's performance, and they give Obama a narrow edge over the GOP when it comes to dealing with major issues. Nearly one-fifth of independents do not trust either the president or the Republicans, a sign that both sides remain on trial in the eyes of this crucial part of the population.

Most independents say the Republicans are not doing enough to make deals with Obama, and more than four in 10 say the president is not doing enough to reach out to the other side.

Obama's tax compromise with Republicans on Capitol Hill sparked vocal protests from liberal elected officials and leaders of some progressive groups. But the poll shows no notable erosion in his support among liberal Democrats in the population at large. His approval rating among liberal Democrats stands at a lofty 87 percent, almost identical to where it was in an early October poll and down marginally from a survey later that month.

Persistent pessimism

More broadly, the poll found that the widespread public pessimism that shaped election-year attitudes has not been alleviated by the vote's outcome. Two-thirds of all Americans say the country is heading in the wrong direction, the same number that said so a month into Obama's term.

It's the nation's puttering economy that continues to drive the negative views. Nearly six in 10 Americans - 57 percent - say that, in personal terms, the recession has not ended, regardless of what economists say. More than a third say that someone in their household has lost a job in the past year, nearly double the proportion saying so when Obama took office. Nearly three-quarters now say they have close friends or immediate family members who have been hit with job loss.

During the fall campaign, most Republican candidates pledged to cut federal spending and attack the deficit. Both congressional Republicans and the president now say they hope to make deficit reduction a high priority in 2011. But it is a tricky issue, even though most of those polled want the government to make efforts to reduce the imbalance now, not wait for the economy to recover.

Of the nine ways proposed in the poll to close to budget deficit - including some outlined in the report recently released by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform - not a single one gets majority support. Seven are opposed by 51 percent or more.

Nearly eight in 10 poll respondents oppose raising federal gasoline taxes, and about two-thirds are against cutting yearly Social Security benefit increases or eliminating the tax deduction that parents can take for children younger than 18. Most also oppose raising the capital gains tax, reducing federal aid to agriculture, cutting defense spending or gradually bumping up the qualifying age for Social Security payouts.

The poll was conducted Dec. 9 to 12 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. Interviews were conducted on conventional and cellular telephones. Results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Polling consultant Meredith Chaiken contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company