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.

BUDGET -- Perceived non-cooperation on the budget deficit is one problem for the Republicans in Congress. Seventy-one percent say the GOP is not willing enough to compromise with Obama on the deficit; that even includes 42 percent of Republicans. Fifty-two percent overall also say Obama isn't willing enough to compromise -- still a majority, but a substantially smaller one. (Indeed, 30 percent call Obama "too willing" to make peace; half as many say that about the GOP.)

It follows that on another measure, the public by a 14-point margin says it's more apt to hold the Republicans than Obama responsible if the budget impasse forces a partial government shutdown. (Then again, three in 10 also say a partial shutdown would be a good thing.)

There's a close division on another basic element of the debate: By 45-41 percent, Americans split on whether large reductions in the budget would do more to cut jobs or create them.

The public also divides essentially evenly, 43-42 percent, on another measure -- which side, Obama or the Republicans, they trust more to find the right balance between keeping government spending that is needed, and cutting spending that's not needed.

Most Americans take the middle ground in deficit-reduction: A substantial 64 percent say the best way to trim the deficit is with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, rather than just cutting spending (31 percent, down 5 points from December) or only raising taxes (3 percent).

OBAMA -- Obama, in all, is holding up fairly well. His job approval rating stands at 51 percent, with 45 percent disapproving -- probably about as good as it can get in this kind of economy. The president's rating exactly matches his average in more than a dozen ABC/Post polls since December 2009, when the first bloom of his presidency faded.

In addition to his advantage over the Republicans in trust to handle the economy (12 points) and the deficit (9 points), Obama holds a 7-point edge in trust to handle "protecting the rights of working people," a potential area of differentiation given the controversy over the bargaining rights of unionized state employees.

He also leads the Republicans on two empathy measures: by 12 points in better understanding the economic problems people in the country are having, and by a scant 5 points in better representing "your own personal values."

There are still substantial negatives for the president. In addition to his 55 percent disapproval on the economy and the deficit, just 28 percent of Americans say they think the economic stimulus package actually helped the economy, the fewest to say so since June 2009. It's a central and sharp criticism of a president elected above all to turn the economy around.

CONGRESS/GOP -- Congress overall, meanwhile, is laboring under just a 27 percent approval rating; it's received less than 30 percent approval continuously since July 2008, its longest run that low in polling data since 1974.

For their part, the Republicans, as noted, are seen as having a stronger leadership role in Washington, at 46 percent to Obama's 39 percent. That compares with as essentially even split in December. It's much weaker than the leadership roles ascribed to congressional Democrats over Bush in early 2007, or to congressional Republicans over Bill Clinton in 1995; that may be because the out-party in those cases won both houses of Congress, not just one.

TWO KAHUNAS -- Ultimately, the big kahuna in U.S. politics long has been the economy, and as noted, more than half of Americans, 53 percent, say it's not yet begun to recover; 46 percent think recovery has begun. While that's not great, it's better than it's been: The number who see economic improvement has risen by 12 points since October.

People who think the economy is improving are 20 points more apt than those who don't to express optimism about the country's system of government. That suggests that further perceived economic improvement would do much to ease the public's long-running snit.

But there are two clear risks: One, the pain of gas prices. And two, simmering discontent with the war in Afghanistan. The irony for Obama would be to turn the corner on the economy, just as unhappiness with the war reaches full boil.

METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone March 10-13, 2011, among a random national sample of 1,005 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points.

The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y, with sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

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