TOPICS > Politics

Public Anger on the Rise as Focus Turns to Midterm Races

February 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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President Barack Obama's approval rating has steadied near 49 percent after dropping for much of this year, according to new voter polls released Friday. Both parties are working to address public frustration over partisan gridlock in Congress as the fall's midterm elections draw closer.
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JIM LEHRER: There was fresh evidence today of rising public anger at Washington. It comes as the midterm election year begins in earnest.

Judy Woodruff has our story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The nation’s capital was frozen in place for real this week, after the second blizzard in only six days. But, around the country, growing unhappiness with Washington has been heating up for some time.

It was illustrated this week in a raft of polls, from The Washington Post and ABC News, The New York Times partnering with CBS News, and, most recently today from the Pew Research Center. It found approval ratings for President Obama have steadied at 49 percent, after falling for most of last year.

Ratings for his party kept sliding. Just 48 percent of Americans gave Democrats a favorable rating, down 14 points from a year ago. But, for the first time in years, Republicans almost equaled the Democrats, at 46 percent favorable, up six points from a year ago.

The president has said people are frustrated at partisan gridlock, and his spokesman, Robert Gibbs, reinforced the point today.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: Look, I can understand the frustration of Democrats and Republicans alike that, regrettably, the process of Washington has overwhelmed a series of ideas that the American people want to see on behalf — work for them on behalf of the cares and concerns that they have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Indeed, one of the most striking findings in the Pew poll showed public opinion of Congress as a whole has cratered.

Almost a third of those surveyed said they don’t want their own representative reelected this fall. That’s the worst rating for incumbents in the Pew survey since 1994, when Republicans recaptured the House. Still, a wave of House GOP retirements has raised new questions about their prospects this time around.

Florida’s Lincoln Diaz-Balart announced this week he will not run again in the midterm elections, just 24 hours after Michigan’s Vernon Ehlers said the same. And, late last month, Indiana’s Steve Buyer also announced he won’t seek another term.

That means Republicans will have 18 open House seats to defend in November, to 14 for Democrats, including this one.

REP. PATRICK KENNEDY, D-R.I. : Now, having spent two decades in politics, my life is taking a new direction, and I will not be a candidate for reelection this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island announced his retirement today, after eight terms. His father, Senator Edward Kennedy, died last year. So, come 2011, there will be no Kennedy in Congress for the first time in nearly half-a-century.

In the meantime, it remains unclear what Congress can or will do this year to change voters’ opinions. There’s been some progress on a financial re-regulation bill. But health care reform is in limbo, along with climate change. And now there’s a new dispute in the Senate over a jobs bill.

SEN. HARRY REID,D-Nev., majority leader: We have a bipartisan bill that will create jobs, according to the CBO, immediately.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made that announcement Thursday, but, just hours later, he dramatically scaled it back to a much leaner plan. Democrats complained it would do too little, and some Republicans said it’s still too much.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: I’m concerned about how it’s paid for. I’m concerned with loading it up with other extraneous provisions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Senate takes up the jobs bill in 10 days, after the President’s Day recess.

And now, for more on what the polls say and how that may be affecting the politicians, we turn to Andrew Kohut, president and director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and Chris Cillizza, who reports on politics for The Washington Post.

Thank you both for being here.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, The Washington Post: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy Kohut, to you first.

Angry, is that the word you would use to describe the public’s attitude?

ANDREW KOHUT, director, Pew Research Center: Very upset. Expectations were very high last year that the Obama administration would be the beginning of a new kind — new way of working in Washington.

That hasn’t been the case. Eighty percent say they are either angry or bothered by the gridlock. But it’s not only Washington. The — in our poll, what really stands out is how much tremendous personal anger there is at the banks and the big financial institutions.

This is an era in which we have seen less support for regulation. The public makes an exception. Fifty-nine percent said we need more government control of the banking industry. And the ratings of Wall Street are at an all-time low.

But, you know, going — getting back to Washington, it is pox on both of their houses. The Republicans are making some gains, but we find the majorities of people saying that the Republicans and the Democrats are doing a poor job of offering solutions to the problems.

And when the economy is in bad shape, and nearly 10 percent unemployment, that is big stuff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, this — this change that we — we commented on, the improvement for the Republicans, how big a deal is that?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, it is an important — it’s important, because the Republicans have been — those numbers have been low for a long time. People are beginning to forget the Bush years.

But we can’t over — we can’t overanalyze it or overinterpret it, because by — on balance, they are still not very good. And the Democrats have a better image on many issues, not most issues, but many issues, but a smaller one than they did in the past. So, the Republicans still have to make more progress to experience a wave of an election, riding the anti-incumbent sentiment that you mentioned in the setup of this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Chris Cillizza, how do you see these polls? And you talked to members. How do they see them, Democrats and Republicans?

CHRIS CILLIZZA: I think most Democrats, in the wake of Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts on January 19 in the Ted Kennedy — the special election to replace Ted Kennedy, are nervous.

I think that they think, if it can happen in Massachusetts, it can happen almost anywhere — obviously, Massachusetts one of the most Democratic states in the country.

To Andy’s point about Republicans making gains, I think some of the gains here are — are what I would ascribe to sort of an other — being the other guy, which is, people aren’t happy with Washington. They know Democrats, by and large, are in control, the president in the White House, control of the House and Senate.

Republicans just happen to be that other guy. So, if you aren’t happy with the current state of affairs, maybe you turn and give the other guy a chance. Divided government ruled the last decade. All the way up until about 2006, people wanted divided government. In 2006 and 2008, the revulsion with George W. Bush, the desire to radically change things, led to huge gains, 50-plus seats in the House, 15 seats in the Senate for Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

CHRIS CILLIZZA: We may be returning back to that era.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Andy, you have looked at these polls in election years in the past. And we are 10 months away from November midterms. Are these numbers that are likely to hold up?

ANDREW KOHUT: Who know? You really — you really can’t say.

ANDREW KOHUT: It could be that they will hold up and we will see Republican gains. The question is, are they the kind of gains that the Democrats made in ’82, when Reagan was facing the same kind of unemployment problem, and there was a lot of frustration with him, or will this be ’06 or ’94?

One of the real issues here is Barack Obama. His approval ratings are still reasonably high, given all of the frustration with him. We have had him at about 50 percent for a very long time, even though most people now say they don’t think he’s trying hard enough on the economy. The number who say he is doing — making things better is equal to the number who say he is making things worse.

As long as his numbers stay up, the Democrats have a chance of avoiding a major calamity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, Chris, as you talk to members, what are — what are these numbers saying to them as they plan their campaigns for reelection, or as they try to get fellow party members elected in the fall?

CHRIS CILLIZZA: You know, Judy, I think you always go through this decade in every election. Is this a national election or is this a local election? Is it going to be decided on a bridge project in a member’s district or is this a referendum on the president?

I think the White House believes, Republicans believe this a national election. I know for a fact the White House is sticking to their guns. Their message has been, you are going to be labeled an Obama Democrat, whether you like it or not, in many of these districts.

The only option that you have is to be able to go and tell a positive story, say, you sent me to Washington to change things, to get things done. I got things done.

The complicating factor with that, the biggest priority the president has spent the last year on, health care, isn’t done yet. And you have many Democrats, including people like Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, Michael Bennet in Colorado, who are nervous about going back into a vote like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what can they say to the public, given that, Andy Kohut?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, they have to be positive. What our poll finds is that, while most people continue to — a plurality oppose the health care reform bill, when we ask people do they want the Republicans — do they want the government to drop it, most people say, on, keep working on it. Only 25 percent say, let’s drop it.

There is a desire to see change across the board, and health care included, for sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which — which raises the question, where does all this leave bipartisanship? The president has said, we have got to work together. There have been a few sort of halting efforts at that this week.

But — but are we — I mean, are we going to — are we going to see members who see it is in their interests to work with the other party?

CHRIS CILLIZZA: I think — I always say, once the year turns even, that is, an election year, you are less likely to see any major legislative accomplishments, bipartisan or not.

I think that Republicans made a bet very early on, Judy, in 2009 that opposing this president’s agenda was the right move politically. They, I think, also believe it is the right move from a policy perspective, but it was the right move politically. They’re going to look at numbers in the Pew poll. They are going to look at The Washington Post poll.

And they’re going to say, you know what, this seems to be paying dividends. I can’t imagine you would see a broadscale bipartisan effort on any major piece of legislation, be it health care, energy, simply because Republicans have invested a lot of time and energy in a strategy to say, we have a different vision, we are not supportive of where this president is taking the country.

ANDREW KOHUT: The problem is that the public doesn’t get the Republican vision. They don’t know what they stand for.

And you — that comes — comes across in this — in — in our polling in any number of ways. And the issue is, how far can they really get if they don’t become associated with a particular — what is seen as a particular constructive idea? Again, 60 percent say the Republicans have done a poor job of offering solutions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the public is still saying we want to see the two parties work together?

ANDREW KOHUT: Absolutely. And when they are asked about who is to blame for this, more of them cite the Republicans than cite President Obama, according to the CBS/New York Times poll.

CHRIS CILLIZZA: The one thing I would add, I think midterm elections are especially about passion and energy.

I think Republicans, the Republican base is the place where the energy and the passion is. Now, you could argue that it is actually in the Tea Party movement, which is not necessarily of the Republican base. But it’s clearly — there’s a more energized Republican base than there is a Democratic base.

That leads to the potential for a real turnout disparity. These are — not presidential year turnout. Midterm turnout is lower. Turnout disparity matters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have got 10 months to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lots of time to think about it.

And we thank you both for being here. Chris Cillizza, Andy Kohut, thank you.

CHRIS CILLIZZA: Thanks, Judy.