ABC News/Washington Post Poll: Dissatisfaction With Washington Hits 19-Year High

Jul 19, 2011 5:00pm

Analysis by ABC News' Pollster Gary Langer (@LangerResearch):  Discontent with Washington’s budget battles has spurred public dissatisfaction with the federal government to its highest level in nearly 20 years – with attendant political peril on both sides of the debate. Against a backdrop of broad concern about the impact of default, 80 percent of Americans in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll say they’re dissatisfied or even angry with the way the federal government is working, up 11 points in a single month. It last was this high in 1992, during the economic downturn that cost the first President Bush a second term. The times today are nearly as tough: The ABC News Frustration Index has risen to 72 on its scale of 0 to 100, its highest since just before the 2010 midterm elections and well into the political danger zone. The index combines dissatisfaction with the government, anti-incumbent sentiment and ratings of the president and the economy alike. But unlike 1992 – or 2010 – the opposition party’s taking even more heat than the president. While President Obama for the first time has fallen under 40 percent approval for handling the economy, the Republicans in Congress do even worse, 28 percent approval. On handling the deficit, it’s a weak 38 percent approval for Obama, but a weaker 27 percent for the GOP.  And on handling taxes, Obama has 45 percent approval, the GOP, 31 percent. Obama maintains 47 percent job approval overall in this poll, produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates. That’s better than it might be, given the economy and the public’s palpable annoyance with Washington. And in the budget debate he has some comparative advantages: Head-to-head he leads the congressional Republicans in trust to handle the debt debate, 48 percent to 39 percent. And while 58 percent say he hasn’t done enough to compromise on the deficit, many more, 77 percent, say the same about the GOP leaders. Those views of intransigence are up by 6 points for both sides, indicating increased frustration with the budget wrangles. That includes each side’s own faithful: Forty-three percent of liberals say Obama is not willing enough to compromise on the deficit, up 13 points from this spring. But more conservatives and Republicans, 58 percent in both cases, say GOP leaders aren’t doing enough to compromise; the latter is up by 16 points. Even among Tea Party supporters, 62 percent say congressional Republicans have not been willing enough to compromise on the deficit. TAXES and CUTS – The president benefits from a broad preference, 62-32 percent, that deficit reduction include a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, not the GOP-favored approach of cuts alone. Support for just cuts lost some ground this month from its high in June, although at 37 percent that, too, was well short of a majority, The Republicans, at the same time, have gained on one of their arguments: Forty-seven percent of Americans now think large spending cuts will create jobs, up by 6 points overall (and by 12 points among Democrats) from an ABC/Post poll in March. Still, about as many, 44 percent, think spending cuts will result in job losses – a nearly even divide on this crucial question. Among those who think the deficit should be tackled only with spending cuts, Obama trails the Republicans in Congress in trust to handle the current debate by 41 points, 65 percent vs. 24 percent. But the majority that prefers a combination of cuts and tax increases favors Obama to deal with the issue, by 57 to 28 percent. It also helps Obama that independents, the keystone of national politics, side with Democrats in their preference for a combination of spending cuts and tax increases (64 and 74 percent, respectively are in favor). Republicans, for their part, split nearly evenly between spending cuts only (50 percent) and a combined approach (46 percent). And the choice creates a division in conservative ranks: People who call themselves very conservative favor spending cuts over cuts and taxes together, 62 vs. 33 percent; but those who are “somewhat” conservative break in the opposite direction, 36-62 percent. In this, “somewhat” conservatives look more like moderates and liberals. There are two specifics measured in this poll on which, even among Republicans, support for tax increases reaches majorities: raising taxes on people with incomes higher than $250,000 a year and raising taxes on oil and gas companies. While not quite a majority, half of Republicans also support raising Medicare premiums for wealthy retirees, and nearly that many back raising the Medicare eligibility age and raising taxes on hedge fund managers. CONSEQUENCES – Americans’ discontent could be worse were it not for the majority belief that, whatever their differences, Obama and the Republicans will settle on a debt/deficit plan and avoid default by the Aug. 2 deadline – 54 percent think so. But there’s also very substantial concern about the impacts if that doesn’t happen: Eighty-two percent of Americans foresee serious harm to the U.S. economy overall if the debt limit isn’t raised, up from 71 percent in a similar question last month. Nearly as many, 77 percent foresee serious harm to the United States’ reputation as a safe place to invest. Fewer, but still 60 percent, think a default would cause serious harm to their own financial situation. These concerns cross partisan and ideological lines. Views that default would seriously harm the economy, hurt the United States’ reputation as a safe place to invest and harm individuals’ own finances are expressed, respectively, by 80, 76 and 56 percent of Republicans, as well as by 90, 83 and 66 percent of Democrats. Even among very conservative adults, majorities see damage to the economy, the country’s reputation and their own finances. TO DO? – There are deficit-reducing proposals that receive majority support, and, as noted, even to some extent bipartisan support. Wealthy Americans generally are seen as more able to chip in; thus 72 percent of the public backs higher taxes on wealthy individuals overall, 66 percent would raise the income level subject to Social Security taxes, 64 percent favor raising taxes on hedge fund managers and 61 percent would raise Medicare premiums for better-off retirees. Fifty-nine percent support higher taxes on oil and gas companies, another well-off target.  Other measures garner less support: Forty-six percent favor raising the age of eligibility for Medicare health insurance from 65 to 67 – not a majority, but a sizable number, and 13 points higher than the result of a similar question asked 14 years ago. Forty-two percent favor slowing the rate of growth in Social Security benefits. And 43 percent support cutting military spending, not much different from what it was, 38 percent, in a similar ABC/Post question nearly 30 years ago. Least popular of all is the notion of cutting Medicaid spending, the insurance program for the poor: Just 26 percent are in favor. (It’s been reported that members of both parties have called in budget talks for Medicaid cuts.) Opposition to Medicaid cuts reaches 85 percent among those who would be most affected – those making less than $20,000 a year. But among the highest-income Americans, 58 percent also are opposed. FRUSTRATION and OBAMA – It doesn’t take much to see the public’s frustration in all this, particularly with 9.2 percent unemployment (16.2 percent counting discouraged workers) thrown into the stew. Ninety percent of Americans say the economy’s in bad shape, and the 80 percent who express dissatisfaction with the way the government is working includes 25 percent who are downright angry about it, tying the record. Given these, it’s remarkable, as noted, that Obama’s overall job approval rating is still holding so close to the 50 percent mark – 47 percent in this survey, identical in three ABC/Post readings since April. The trick appears to be Obama’s ability, in these partisan times, both to hold on to substantial support among his core groups while remaining competitive in the political center. Again, some of his positioning helps: In addition to taking the more popular road on taxes and cuts, he holds an advantage over GOP leaders in being seen as looking out for the economic interests of the middle class, small businesses and “you and your family.” (See separate analysis.) Yet with this much frustration the president, too, is highly vulnerable. People who strongly disapprove of his performance outnumber strong approvers by 10 points. Discontent – a key political motivator – peaks in specific groups; the Frustration Index hits 85 among Republicans and 83 among very conservative Americans and strong supporters of the Tea Party movement. Then there’s the wildcard of the current deficit and debt limit debate. The range of taxes and cuts on the table include some most Americans will accept – but others most reject. Alternatively, if the government does go into default, 42 percent say they’d blame the Republicans in Congress, while 36 percent would blame Obama and 19 percent volunteer that they’d blame both equally – in all, plenty of heat to share. METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone July 14-17, 2011, among a random national sample of 1,001 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 Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.

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