Thursday, May 19, 2005

Approval of Congress Erodes in Survey

The Wall Street Journal

May 19, 2005

Approval of Congress Erodes in Survey

May 19, 2005; Page A3

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that disapproval of Congress's performance is higher than it has been since 1994, the year voters swept Democrats out of power on Capitol Hill. Americans have grown gloomier about the nation's direction, the economy and Iraq, and by 65%-17% they say Congress doesn't share their priorities.

"If you're a member of Congress ... you'd better be looking over your shoulder," says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who helps conduct the Journal/NBC survey. His Republican counterpart, Bill McInturff, adds that a particular concern for incumbents looking to 2006 is unhappiness among senior citizens, a group that disproportionately turns out to vote in midterm elections.

While the survey contains warning signs for members of both parties, it is especially problematic for Republicans as the party in power at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The poll of 1,005 adults, conducted May 12-16, shows that the greatest erosion in congressional approval has occurred among self-described Republicans. The poll's margin of error is 3.1 percentage points.

Just 42% of Americans say their representative deserves to be re-elected, while a 45% plurality calls it time for someone new. When Americans are asked which party they want to control Congress after the 2006 elections, Democrats hold a 47%-40% edge -- the party's best showing since the Journal/NBC survey began asking that question in 1994.

The poll results can be viewed at:

The 18 months between now and the 2006 midterms give incumbents plenty of time to affect the public mood, and Republicans can take solace in the fact that the Democratic Party's image hasn't improved. The dearth of competitive House seats and the fact that Democrats have more Senate seats at risk means the minority party on Capitol Hill needs a large and lasting shift in sentiment to have any hope of recapturing control.

The survey shows a growing sense of disconnection between official Washington and ordinary Americans. "There's a gap between perceptions of President Bush's and Congress's agendas and the public's agenda," Mr. McInturff says.

That is reflected in the attitude of respondents like Jodie Baca, a 57-year-old waitress in Bernalillo, N.M. "They should focus a little bit more" on the economy, says the self-described "strong Republican" voter. "If the gas prices go up, our minimum wages should go up -- like soon," she says. Now, she says, she's having second thoughts about her vote last November for Republican Rep. Heather Wilson.

Escalating violence in Iraq, which has left many Americans pessimistic about prospects there, may be part of the problem. By 49%-12%, Americans say Mr. Bush and his administration are placing "too much emphasis" on Iraq and by margins of 65%-1% and 64%-9% say Mr. Bush is placing "too little emphasis" on the economy and gas prices, respectively.

Nor are incumbents helped by Washington's battles over John Bolton's nomination for United Nations ambassador and the "nuclear option" for ending judicial filibusters. Just 13% of Americans say Mr. Bush and Congress are working together to end gridlock, while 80% say things will remain the same in Washington. That is a much dimmer view than Americans took just two years ago, when 41% said Congress and the president were working to end gridlock.

Mr. Bush's overall ratings are essentially unchanged since April; the 47% of Americans who approve of his job performance match the 47% who disapprove. But in three specific areas -- handling the economy, handling foreign policy generally and handling Iraq -- narrow majorities disapprove of his performance.

But Mr. Bush's ratings look robust alongside those of Congress. Just 33% approve of lawmakers' performance while 51% disapprove, nearly matching the 32%-56% rating Congress received six months before the "Republican revolution" of 1994. While assessments by Democrats and independents slipped slightly since April, approval of Congress by Republicans dropped by 11 percentage points to 45%.

The ethics cloud over House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is attracting public notice. By 52%-12%, Americans say Congress should investigate the Texan's travel and relationships with lobbyists. Though just over half of Americans don't know who Mr. DeLay is or have a neutral opinion, the rest view him negatively by a two-to-one margin.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have lately tried to move the spotlight from ethics by emphasizing steps they have taken that they say will improve the economy, including changes in laws governing bankruptcy and class-action litigation. The poll shows they have good reason for trying. The 42% of Americans who say the economy has gotten worse in the past 12 months is the highest in nearly two years. The proportion predicting it will get worse in the next 12 months has nearly doubled, to 30%, since January.

On Social Security, public skepticism toward Mr. Bush's main domestic priority hasn't eased since April. As the White House prods Republican lawmakers to act, Americans by 56%-36% call it a "bad idea" to allow workers to invest Social Security contributions in the stock market.

Mr. Bush has tapped a popular idea with the suggestion of trimming future benefits more for higher-income seniors than for lower-income seniors if cuts become necessary. But just 14% of Americans -- the same as in January before Mr. Bush's overhaul campaign -- say the Social Security system is "in crisis."

Support for the administration's initiative has dropped among older Americans, whom Mr. Bush has tried to reassure by saying they would be unaffected. By 58%-29%, those 65 and over say the country is "off on the wrong track."

"Seniors are pretty riled," Mr. McInturff says, and if it persists "that has consequences in midterm elections."

Write to John Harwood at john.harwood@wsj.com4
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