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Americans see tone of debate as negative

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 18, 2011

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.).

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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.


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