Poll shows high marks for Obama on Tucson, low regard for political dialogue

By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 12:24 AM

Americans overwhelmingly describe the tone of political discourse in the country as negative, verging on angry, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, but more than half say the culture did not contribute to the shootings in Tucson that killed six people and wounded 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

Evaluations of President Obama's handling of the Jan. 8 tragedy are highly positive across the political spectrum, with nearly eight in 10 giving him high marks for his response to the incident. A robust 71 percent of Republicans say they approve of his leadership following the shootings.

The strong reviews of the president's response to the Arizona incident - which included giving a prime-time eulogy at a memorial service for the victims - have helped boost Obama's overall approval rating to its highest point since last April. Fully 54 percent of all Americans now approve of the way he is handling his job as president, while 43 percent disapprove.

After calls from leaders in both major parties to temper the discourse after the shootings, Americans are hopeful that Obama and the Republicans in Congress will be able to work together this year on important issues. In the new poll, 55 percent said they are optimistic that the two sides will do so, up seven percentage points from an ABC News-Yahoo News survey taken just before the massacre.

This Post-ABC poll started the evening after Obama's Arizona speech, and the numbers show a big shift among Republicans. In early October, as a heated midterm election campaign entered its final month, GOP approval of Obama dipped to 8 percent. It is now 22 percent. Most Republicans still strongly disapprove of the president's job performance, but at 53 percent, such intense disapproval is down 10 points since December. It is now lower than at any point since the summer of 2009.

Like similar violent events in the past, the Arizona shootings did not generate greater support for tougher gun-control measures in general. But a majority - 57 percent - said they support a nationwide ban on high-capacity magazine clips such as the one the shooter in Tucson used.

Overall, 52 percent favor stricter gun-control laws, a number little changed in recent years and down from where it was after the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. Support for new restrictions on the sale of semiautomatic handguns is also down from what it was after the Virginia Tech incident.

About a third - 31 percent - favor a blanket prohibition on the sale of all handguns, except to law enforcement officers, which is comparable to public opinion after the Columbine school shootings in 1999 in Littleton, Colo., and lower than what it was after Virginia Tech.

Going too far?

The Tucson shootings sparked a broad public discussion about whether the political dialogue in the country has become too toxic and overheated. In the new poll, Americans are split evenly on the question of whether the tone could encourage violence, with about half saying it has not gone that far and the other half saying it could or already has.

Slim majorities say political commentators on the left and the right have crossed the line of acceptable rhetoric, and almost half say so of the tea party movement.

Separately, 52 percent of Americans now hold unfavorable views of the tea party, a new high. Nearly three-quarters of Democrats - including as many moderate and conservative as liberal members of the party - have negative views of the political movement, as do half of all independents.

The public is somewhat less severe in its evaluations of the rhetorical stands of the two major parties and their supporters, with 45 percent saying the GOP has crossed the line in how opponents are attacked and 39 percent saying that of the Democrats.

Still, the same partisan divisions that have inflamed the political dialogue and polarized the country are at play here. Big majorities of Republicans say the Democratic Party, its allies and liberal commentators have engaged in unacceptable demonizing of their opponents. Most Democrats say the GOP, conservative commentators and the tea party movement have gone too far.

News media outlets, which were criticized as contributing to the harsh tone of political discourse, receive a net positive rating from the public in the way they covered the Tucson shootings.

In contrast to glowing reviews for the president, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R) draws more negative than positive evaluations of the way she has handled the tragedy. About 30 percent give her positive marks, while nearly half - 46 percent - disapprove of her actions. About a quarter in the poll expressed no opinion. Fewer than half of all Republicans approve of Palin's handling of the matter, with positive marks rising to just 56 percent among conservative Republicans.

Palin was criticized after the shootings for having published a map during the 2010 midterm campaign that included cross hairs on congressional districts of 20 Democrats she hoped to see defeated, including Giffords.

A Palin adviser said after the shootings that the marks were surveyor's symbols, not cross hairs. Palin then released a video statement in which she said that people who were suggesting that her actions or the political discourse in general had brought about the massacre were guilty of "blood libel," a phrase that refers to accusations in the past that Jews had used the blood of non-Jews in their religious rituals.

Rising from new lows

The rise in Obama's overall approval number comes after an autumn in which his ratings hit new lows and his party suffered major electoral defeats. Also up is the public's assessment of the president's empathy. By a wide margin, 58 percent to 40 percent, Americans say he understands the problems of people like themselves. That is his best rating on this score in more than a year, significantly better for him than the split verdict he received last fall and summer. In September, 57 percent of whites said Obama did not understand their issues; now, a slim 52 percent majority of whites say he does get it.

Although the president's improved ratings could signal the beginning of a post-election comeback in his political fortunes, other findings from the new poll suggest that the durability of the improvement is highly dependent on how the coming fights with congressional Republicans play out.

Obama's overall approval rating may be back in positive territory, but views of how he has dealt with major domestic issues still tilt negative. Slim majorities disapprove of how he is handling the economy, health-care reform and the budget deficit. Fifty percent approve of his handling of taxes.

About 44 percent of Americans say the country should go in the direction Obama wants to lead it, while 35 percent would prefer to track with the Republicans in Congress. On health-care reform, taxes and the burgeoning federal budget deficit, the public is about as apt to trust the GOP as it is to have confidence in the president. This is the first Post-ABC poll in which Obama has not led the GOP on health-care reform.

Obama does have the upper hand - though narrowly - on the economy and terrorism. He has double-digit advantages over the GOP when it comes to helping the middle class and dealing with the war in Afghanistan.

The broader political framework that fueled consecutive "change" elections in 2006, 2008 and 2010 remains in place: Americans continue to give the nation's economy exceedingly low marks, and most still think the country is running off course. Although Republicans have become somewhat more positive about Congress after the party won back control of the House in November, at 66 percent disapproval among all Americans, ratings of the legislature remain broadly negative.

After his first few weeks as House speaker, John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) starts with 39 percent approval, 27 percent disapproval and 33 percent expressing no opinion. Four years ago, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) started out with significantly higher ratings, although she, like Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1995, saw her ratings deteriorate quickly.

The poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 13 to 16 among a random national sample of 1,053 adults, including users of both conventional and cellular telephones. The results have a margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

balzd@washpost.com cohenj@washpost.com

Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company