Poll: Persistent Economic Discontent Casts Continuing Political Pall

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Congressional Republicans are newly competitive on several key issues, President Obama leads on compromise and sincerity -- but that thick pall over Washington is the same as ever: economic gloom and the political disaffection that comes with it.

A month after voters chucked the Democrats out of control of the House of Representatives, a boost in political optimism is nowhere to be found. While a plurality of Americans, 41 percent, see the House switch as a good thing, that's fewer than said so the last two times it's happened, in 2006 and 1994. And 67 percent say the country's seriously off on the wrong track.

The reason is plain: A record 71 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll say they've been hurt by the recession, with nearly four in 10 hurt "a great deal." Fifty-seven percent say the economy has not yet begun to recover -- up 8 points from a year ago. One in three reports a job loss in their own household within the past year; equally remarkably, 72 percent say a close friend or relative has lost a job or been laid off. Both are new highs since the recession began.

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There may, however, be a glimmer down the road: In the latest ABC News Consumer Comfort Index, 28 percent of Americans now say the economy's improving -- hardly a robust result, but nonetheless the most since May.

The economy aside, the federal budget deficit doesn't help the public's mood, and in that regard this poll, produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates, finds some potential room to move: In order to address the deficit, nearly half of Americans, 48 percent, say they'd support gradually increasing the age at which people can receive full Social Security benefits.

That's greater support for increasing the retirement age than previous polls have indicated. Still, intensity of sentiment is against the idea -- "strong" opponents outnumber strong supporters by nearly 2-1 -- and a variety of other deficit-reduction ideas, including slowing the growth of Social Security benefits, eliminating the tax deduction for children under 18 and raising gasoline taxes, are very broadly unpopular.

DISCONTENT -- The public's political disaffection overall is marked by a departure from allegiance to the two main political parties. The number of Americans who identify themselves as political independents has maintained its record high for the second year running, surpassing self-identified Democrats by an all-time margin, and Republicans by nearly so, in ongoing ABC/Post polling dating back 29 years.

On average this year, 38 percent of adults have called themselves independents, matching the average in 2009 as the most on record. That compares to 32 percent who call themselves Democrats, 24 percent Republicans -- among the worst years in historical terms for both parties. Only in one previous period, 1994-95, did independents top the political chart.

The impacts of economic discontent appear in other ways. Barack Obama has a 72 percent job approval rating among people who say an economic recovery has begun, vs. 33 percent among those who say it has not -- a dramatic 39-point gap. His approval overall has slipped under 50 percent for just the second time in ABC/Post polls; it's 49 percent now.

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