Sept. 7, 2010 -- Swelling economic discontent has pushed dissatisfaction with the federal government to its highest level in 18 years, with the same forces that put Barack Obama on the road to the presidency two years ago now threatening to undo his party's control of Congress.
Two months before the 2010 midterm elections, likely voters now favor the Republican over the Democratic candidate in their congressional district by 53-40 percent, the widest GOP margin on record in ABC News/Washington Post polls since 1981.
Beneath that result: Broad rejection of the status quo.
• Ninety-two percent of Americans say the economy's in bad shape. A mere 24 percent believe it's improving. And for the first time numerically more say Obama's economic program has made the economy worse, 33 percent, than improved it, 30 percent. Views that he's helped the economy have dropped by 9 points since spring.
• A majority, 52 percent, now disapproves of the way Obama is handling his job overall, another first in ABC/Post polls. Intensity increasingly is against him, with those who disapprove "strongly" outnumbering strong approvers by 14 points. A record 57 percent rate him negatively on handling the economy, "strongly" so by an even wider margin, 2-1.
• Seventy-eight percent now describe themselves as dissatisfied with the way the federal government is working, up 14 points just since July to the most since October 1992. That includes 25 percent who are "angry," tying the record. Among likely voters, 30 percent are angry – and they favor Republican candidates by a vast 47-point margin.
There's more to trouble Democrats and cheer Republicans in this poll, conducted for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York. After his winning the White House on the mantra of change, 53 percent of Americans now say Obama has failed to deliver "needed change to Washington." And just half now say he "shares your values" or "understands the problems of people like you," both vastly down from their highs.
In July, 51 percent of Americans said they'd rather see the Republicans run Congress, to act as a check on Obama, than the Democrats, to support his policies. Now it's 55 percent; among likely voters, 61 percent. And Congress overall has a 25 percent approval rating, not its lowest on the books (17 percent in 1992, 18 percent in 1994), but hardly a happy number.
In one simple way to sum it up, ABC News' "Frustration Index," based on views of the national economy, presidential approval, anti-incumbency and dissatisfaction with government, has advanced to 72 on its scale of 0 to 100, after holding steady at 67 all year. It about matches its 1992 level, 73, and has been higher just once, 80, as the economy fell into the abyss in fall 2008.
Frustration is up in some unexpected groups, with the index gaining 6 points among moderates, liberal Democrats and non-whites, and 5 points among Democrats overall. And it's risen most steeply, by 9 points, among Americans who think the economy's worsening.
Some of that frustration has settled most clearly among supporters of the Tea Party movement. It remains controversial, with more Americans holding unfavorable views of the Tea Party than favorable ones, 45 percent to 38 percent. But the discontent behind it seems clear: the Frustration Index is 21 points higher among people who see the Tea Party favorably, 83, vs. 62 among its detractors.
What's bad for the president is dreadful for his party. Shortly after he took office the Democrats held a record 26-point advantage over the Republicans in trust to handle the country's main problems. By this June, that was down to 12 points. Today, it's a mere 3-point spread, 40-37 percent – similar to what it was in October 1994, just before the Republicans last seized control of Congress.
Similarly, Americans divide essentially evenly, 42-40 percent, on which party they trust more to handle the economy. That's narrowed from an 8-point gap in the Democrats' favor in June and 19 points in early 2008. It last was this close eight years ago.
The Republicans hold 6-point advantages in trust to handle taxes and the deficit, and on Afghanistan they've turned a 10-point disadvantage in the spring to a scant (not statistically significant) 4-point edge now. Democrats are down to a slight 5-point edge on health care – the closest division on this issue in ABC/Post polls since the question first was asked in 1991.
The GOP also has improved on some softer measures: Americans now divide almost evenly, 45-42 percent, on which party, the Democrats or Republicans, better represents their personal values; that compares to a 10-point Democratic lead a year ago, and 16 points before the 2006 election in which the Democrats regained control of Congress.
And while the Democrats retain a 9-point advantage as the party that "is more concerned with the needs of people like you," that's contracted from a 28-point lead in October 2006.
The Democrats do have some pushback, largely in results indicating that the public's preferences are more a revolt against the status quo than an endorsement of the GOP. For instance, while only 30 percent now say Obama's economic policy has improved the economy, about as few, 32 percent, think the Republicans' would.
The public also divides evenly, 46-47 percent, on whether or not the Republicans have offered the country "a clear direction" that's different from the Democrats'. Likewise on many of the issues noted above, such as trust to handle the economy and the country's main problems overall, the GOP is about even, not ahead.
Indeed incumbents of both parties are at risk, as some Republican primary results have shown. In one strong measure of anti-incumbency, 56 percent of Americans say most of the Democrats in Congress do not deserve re-election. But, in another, 58 percent say the same thing about most of the Republicans in Congress.
Just 33 percent of registered voters are inclined to re-elect their representative; 57 percent say they'd rather look around. That peaked at 62 percent in July, its highest in polling since 1989. But it's still high – and while "re-elect" vs. "look around" gets an even split among Democrats, it's more than 2-1 for "look around" among Republicans and independents alike.
For all their gains, there's been no groundswell of Republican allegiance. Just 25 percent of Americans in this poll identify themselves as Republicans, vs. 31 percent as Democrats; GOP self-identification remains well below its peak, an annual average of 31 percent in 2003. But Democratic allegiance is off, too. Instead independents have outnumbered partisans steadily since spring 2009, something that's happened in just one previous period in ABC/Post polls, in the mid-'90s.
Another result suggests potential Republican vulnerability in blame for the economic mess. Fewer than half of Americans, 42 percent, blame the Obama administration for not doing enough to try to turn the economy around (albeit up 15 points from a year ago); the complaint there apparently has less to do with the effort than with the outcome. By contrast, many more, 60 percent, blame the Bush administration for not doing enough to prevent the meltdown in the first place. The Democrats' challenge, of course, is that George W. Bush is not on the ballot.
Nor is Obama, which is fortunate for him. Forty-five percent of Americans now call him "too liberal," up 16 points since he took office and now matching the number who say he's "about right" ideologically. (Nine percent call him too conservative.) That outpaces the peak "too conservative" numbers for both John McCain (41 percent) and George W. Bush (37 percent). And among likely voters, the number who call Obama too liberal spikes to 55 percent.
Obama's job approval rating is at new lows among a variety of groups, including Democrats (78 percent approve), moderates (52 percent), independents (42 percent) and conservatives (24 percent). He's down by 8 points among moderates just since July.
In addition to his other troubled ratings, 58 percent disapprove of Obama's handling of the deficit. And despite the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq, the mood is so sour that he gets only 49 percent approval for handling that war, with 45 percent disapproving. Putting a sad mark on the end of the combat operations, 62 percent say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting.
Obama may take solace in the fact that his ratings continue to track those of the last president to take office in a recession, Ronald Reagan. At about this point in his presidency Reagan's approve-disapprove rating was 48-45 percent; a few weeks later, 46-50 percent. His approval ratings and Obama's continue to correlate uncannily, now at .9, where 1 is a perfect match.
For all Obama's problems, he personally doesn't look to be driving the vote as much as Bush did in 2002 (positively) or in 2006 (negatively). Likely voters by a 9-point margin say they'll vote to show opposition to Obama rather than to support him, 31 percent to 22 percent; the rest say he's not a factor. In 2002, voters by a wider 15-point margin said they were showing support for Bush – and in 2006, said by a 17-point margin that they were voting to oppose him.
Also, very few, 9 percent, identify "the way Washington works" as one of the single most important issues in their vote preference. Other options – local issues, taxes, Afghanistan, immigration, the deficit and health care – are called one of the single top issues by anywhere from 8 to 19 percent. Many more call the economy one of the single most important issues, 31 percent.
Adding in the next tier, "very important," the economy swells to 93 percent, followed by health care, called very important or more by 82 percent, and the deficit, by 76 percent.
A deep challenge for the Democrats is that the Republicans lead among likely voters across almost all these issues – by margins ranging from 63-30 percent among those who rate the deficit as important to 51-42 percent among those who say the same about health care. Only among those assigning high importance to local issues do the Democrats pull about even.
With two months to go, there are any number of potential wildcards in the 2010 elections. Generalized anti-incumbency is a threat to all, not just Democrats. Turnout is key; the generic congressional horse race, while 53-40 percent among likely voters, is a closer 47-45 percent among registered voters. That means Republican voters are more motivated to participate – and that who actually does show up is essential.
It's also true that midterm contests are only roughly captured by preferences nationally; they are in fact local contests, driven by local candidates and conditions. While the Republicans have a 13-point lead among likely voters now, the Democrats had a 22-point lead (among registered voters) in September 1982. But Reagan, similarly beleaguered then as Obama is now, lost just 26 House seats in that contest, about the average for a president's first midterm. Obama and the Democrats will be looking for that magic.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Aug. 30-Sept. 2, 2010, among a random national sample of 1,002 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results for the full sample have a 3.5-point error margin. Click here for a detailed description of sampling error. This 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.
ABC News polls can be found at ABCNEWS.com at http://abcnews.com/pollingunit