Anger at Government Hits a New Peak, Marking Battle Lines in the 2012 Election

(Charles Dharapak, File)

A fed-up public is greeting election year 2012 with a razz for the government, a jeer for incumbents and a wearying sense of economic frustration — yet also with sharp partisan and ideological divisions that make the contest ahead equally challenging for both sides.

Thirty-one percent of Americans in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll are downright angry at the way the federal government works, a record in polling back to 1992. Add in those who are merely dissatisfied and the total soars to 80 percent, one point from its high 19 years ago.

Nearly as many, 74 percent, say the country’s headed seriously off on the wrong track — not a number that bodes well for incumbent presidents. A year before the 1992 election, during the last downturn anywhere near this severe, 72 percent said the country was on the wrong track; a year before the 1980 election, 77 percent said so; a year before the 1976 vote, 71 percent. Those results presaged the one-term presidencies of George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

Yet, with a 44 percent job approval rating, Barack Obama is holding above the levels customarily associated with an economy this bad and discontent this broad, with greater-than-usual durability in his political base and comparatively strong ratings for personal integrity and empathy. The first president Bush, by contrast, fell as low as 33 percent approval overall; the second, 23 percent — both in less severe economic conditions.

Eighty percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say they’re satisfied with Obama as the party’s nominee, far more than the number of leaned Republicans who are satisfied with their choices, 59 percent. That loyalty is keeping Obama competitive: In head-to-head match-ups he runs essentially evenly against Mitt Romney and Herman Cain and leads Rick Perry in this poll, conducted for ABC News by Langer Research Associates.

But among the many wildcards is diminished party loyalty on both sides. Independents have outnumbered Democrats and Republicans alike continuously for more than two years, the longest such run since ABC/Post polling began in 1981. And in this survey, self-identified Democrats, at 29 percent of the public, are at their lowest share of the population since 1995.

ECONOMY — The economy’s the big kahuna in 2012, with the public’s patience stretched to the breaking point by the length and depth of the downturn. Eighty-nine percent say the economy’s in bad shape; nearly half call it “poor.” Almost two and a half years after the Great Recession officially ended, 63 percent say that as far as they can see the economy hasn’t even begun to recover, up 10 points since March to match the high in polling the past two years. Those who do see recovery overwhelmingly call it a weak one.

The impacts are personal as well as political. A mere 13 percent say they’re better off now than before Barack Obama took office; nearly three times as many say they’re worse off. Two-thirds worry about being able to maintain their standard of living; 31 percent are “very” worried, a new high in the last four years. Fewer than half, 43 percent, are confident they’ll have adequate resources for retirement, the fewest in ABC/Post polls back to 1996 and down dramatically from 68 percent near the height of the boom, in July 2001.

Views such as these are poisonous politically. The 34 percent who say they’ve gotten worse off under the sitting president is just 1 point from the record in September, and as many as said so in advance of the first President Bush’s re-election defeat. Opposition to Obama, even in his own party, peaks among economic malcontents; so does anger at government more broadly.

Anti-incumbency in general also is informed by economic distress, and in this poll 59 percent of Americans say they’re inclined to look around for someone new to support for Congress, 4 points from the record high in polling since 1989, set just this July. Only half as many, 31 percent, are inclined to give their current representative another term.

Fifty-six percent call the economy the single most important issue in their vote for president, a high level of agreement on an open-ended question. (All other answers are in the single digits.)

Yet where they’ll turn for answers is an open question — and above all the key to 2012.

It’s a question on which neither side has yet to impress. Obama? Sixty-one percent in this survey disapprove of how he’s handled the economy; 48 percent disapprove strongly — each a single point from its high. Yet the Republicans in Congress take no advantage: On this, as on many overtly partisan questions, Americans divide evenly, with 42 percent saying they trust Obama more on the economy, 42 percent the GOP.

Obama has relinquished a short-term gain in trust to handle jobs, an issue he’s been pressing hard all fall. He went from a dead heat vs. the Republicans on job creation in September to a 15-point advantage in October, shortly after announcing his $450 billion jobs package. But as it’s stalled, his rating vs. the GOP has retreated back to 40-40 percent. It underscores that the public is not looking for a debate about a jobs plan, but jobs themselves.

Obama, further, has lost his edge in trust to protect the middle class, down from 51-39 percent over the GOP when last measured in April to 45-41 percent now.

APPROVAL and ATTRIBUTES – As noted, the president’s job approval rating stands at 44 percent, with 53 percent disapproving – very close to his worst score, 42-54 percent, last month. More continue to disapprove “strongly” than strongly approve, now by a 15-point margin.

Still, with unemployment what it is, it’s something of an accomplishment that he isn’t in worse shape. While Obama now has just 38 percent approval specifically for handling the economy (and a career low of 35 percent last month), George W. Bush saw 22 percent on this issue; his father, 23 percent. Even Ronald Reagan went lower on the economy than Obama is now, 31 percent approval in late 1982.

In addition to more durability in his base in these partisan times, Obama also benefits from comparative strength in his personal ratings. Fifty-seven percent of Americans see him as honest and trustworthy; his immediate predecessor fell as low as 40 percent on that score. And while only about half the public, 49 percent, says Obama “understands the problems of people like you,” that’s 17 points better than George W. Bush’s low on this measure.

The public divides evenly on two other personal measures, whether Obama “shares your values” and is a strong leader. While all these have the expected sharp divisions among partisan and ideological groups, a sign of trouble for Obama is that his rating as a strong leader, now 48 percent, is down from 55 percent just since June, to a new low.

On issues, while Obama’s approval is weak on the economy, jobs and taxes, and manages just a split decision on handling international affairs, another stands out as his best: dealing with terrorism, on which he gets 60 percent approval. And while the others all tilt against him in intensity of sentiment (more “strong” disapprovers than strong approvers), it’s the opposite on terrorism, a 15-point advantage in strong approval. Dealing with terrorism, a question mark during the 2008 campaign, was Obama’s best issue even before the recent successes against al Qaeda including the killings of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.

Additionally, there’s no harm in Obama’s announcement to carry out a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by year’s end: a vast 78 percent of Americans approve. Sixty-two percent also continue to say that given its costs vs. benefits the Iraq war was not worth fighting — at once a sad coda and a cautionary note for the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.

FAULTS and FAULT LINES — On the current economic debate, the public divides, by 49-46 percent, on whether it’s better to hold down the federal deficit rather than spending to try to create jobs, or the opposite. But more generally there’s a very slight advantage for the president in who gets more blame for the economy — Obama, for failing to exercise economic leadership; or the Republicans in Congress, for standing in the way of his efforts. Fifty percent say Obama’s trying but Congress is blocking; 44 percent say the opposite, that Obama’s just blaming the Congress for his own lack of economic leadership.

Again that’s much better for the president than in 1992, when NBC/Wall Street Journal polls asked a similar question; then George H.W. Bush got more blame than the Democrats in Congress by a wide 20-point margin, 57-37 percent. Yet the risk to Obama remains; his share of blame rises substantially among those unhappiest with the economy.

Other results further underscore the current divisions. Americans who express a negative view of how the government’s working were asked whom they mainly blame for that. Thirty-five percent picked the Republicans in Congress, 32 percent Obama — and 26 percent, both equally. The public also splits, 44-41 percent, on whether they’d prefer to see the next Congress controlled by the Democrats or by the Republicans. That’s a new low for the Democrats in results since 2005, and a new high (albeit just to 10 percent) among those who favor “neither” party.

2012 AHEAD — While head-to-head match-ups are a rough gauge this far from an election, they mark out the field of play. Among all Americans, Obama has 48 percent support, Romney 45 percent; just among those currently registered to vote, it’s Romney 47 percent, Obama 46 — for all intents and purposes a dead heat either way. Independents, the group to watch in national elections, break 50-41 percent for Obama; one reason, though, is that as Democratic ranks go down, the ranks of Democratic-leaning independents go up.

Against Cain, Obama has a 51-43 percent advantage among all adults; it’s a 50-45 percent contest among registered voters. Notably, the two run evenly among men, but Obama has a 15-point advantage among women, as well as among independents.

Perry trails Obama by 53-40 percent among all adults, and 51-43 percent among registered voters. Perry, who’s also lost ground in the GOP contest, ran closer to Obama last month; Obama even trails him a bit less overwhelmingly in some key Republican groups, including Tea Party supporters and evangelical white Protestants.

The basic political equations are not new; when tested against Romney, for example, Obama keeps the support of 87 percent of those who voted for him in 2008; Romney gets 86 percent of those who voted for John McCain; and the rest divide essentially evenly.

But the overlay, in the coming year, is the economy. Troublingly for the administration, views that the recovery has not even begun have grown most sharply in some higher-turnout groups. Skepticism about a recovery is up since last March by 23 points among people with undergraduate degrees, to 65 percent; up by 16 points among Americans age 50 and older, to 67 percent; and up by 14 points among those with $100,000-plus incomes, to 59 percent.

It matters: Each of the potential Republican candidates holds a significant lead over Obama among Americans who say the economy is in poor shape, who say it has not begun to recover, who say they’ve gotten worse off under Obama and who express high-level worries about their living standards and their ability to pay for retirement. And it’s those economic issues that are likely to drive political judgments in the election year ahead.

METHODOLOGY — This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 31-Nov. 3, 2011, among a random national sample of 1,004 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points for the full sample. 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.