Economy, Gas, Partisanship and War Gang Up on Confidence in Government

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Confidence in the U.S. system of government has dropped to a new low in more than 35 years, with public attitudes burdened by continued economic discontent, soaring gasoline prices, record opposition to the war in Afghanistan -- and a letdown in hopes for political progress after a bout of bipartisanship last fall.

Only 26 percent of Americans in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll say they're optimistic about "our system of government and how well it works," down 7 points since October to the fewest in surveys dating to 1974. Almost as many, 23 percent, are pessimistic, the closest these measures ever have come. The rest, a record high, are "uncertain" about the system.

The causes are many. Despite a significant advance, more than half still say the economy has not yet begun to recover. And there's trouble at the pump: Seventy-one percent in this poll, produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates, report financial hardship as a result of rising gas prices. Forty-four percent call it a "serious" hardship.

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WAR -- On an equally critical front in terms of potential political impact, just 31 percent now say the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, a new low. Sixty-four percent call it not worth fighting, and 49 percent feel that way "strongly," both record highs in ABC/Post polls.

Two-to-one opposition for the first time puts public criticism of the war in Afghanistan at the level seen for the war in Iraq. Such views had a devastating impact on President George W. Bush, the least popular second-term president in polls since the Truman presidency. And there's danger ahead; fighting in Afghanistan, now in its winter lull, is expected to intensify come summer.

Indeed, with Gen. David Petraeus set to testify on Capitol Hill this week, a broad and bipartisan 73 percent of Americans say the United States should withdraw a substantial number of its combat forces from Afghanistan this summer. But just 39 percent think it will. (ABC News reported Monday that field commanders in fact are asking for more troops, and a senior official called a sizable reduction unlikely despite the administration's July 11 date for a drawdown to begin.)

POLITICS -- In politics, many Americans appear to regard President Obama and the Republicans in Congress as a choice between a rock and a hard place.

On one hand, 55 percent disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy and budget deficit alike. On the other, Republicans have lost ground in public trust to deal with both issues, now trailing Obama by 12- and 9-point margins, respectively.

Preference for the Republicans on both those issues has declined by 11 points since December, a comedown from the sentiment that lifted the party to its midterm success. More Americans now see the GOP as taking the stronger leadership role in Washington; the results on trust show how that position can carry a price

The drop in trust to handle the economy has occurred chiefly among independents, now drawing away from the GOP after rallying to its side.

As recently as January, 42 percent of independents preferred the Republicans in Congress over Obama to handle the economy. Today just 29 percent say the same, and there's been a rise in the number who volunteer that they don't trust either side.

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