Americans have come to detest Congress ever more deeply as it nears the end of a nasty fight over health care. But more than half still back President Barack Obama, a bright spot for a Democratic Party counting on its leader to help stave off expected losses in elections this fall.
The latest Associated Press-GfK poll found that fewer people approve of Congress than at any point in Obama's presidency. Support has dropped significantly since January to a dismal 22 percent as the health care debate has roiled Capitol Hill. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are safe; half of all people say they want to fire their congressman.
Conversely, Obama's job-performance standing is holding fairly steady at 53 percent. And over the past two months, the Democrat has gained ground on national security issues, specifically the subsiding Iraq war and the escalating Afghanistan war, as he has spent most of his time — at least publicly — on domestic matters like the economy and health care. On those issues, he still has the support of about half the people.
"I agree with what Obama is trying to do, but nobody is listening to him," said Grace Pope of Waterville, Maine. But this 75-year-old Democrat added, "I don't think that the Congress is doing anything."
Such sentiments and the survey's results make clear that Obama remains far more popular than House and Senate members as he leads a Democratic Party facing a volatile election-year environment that, so far, seems to be trending in Republicans' favor. Judging by his standing at this point, Obama seems to be an asset for his rank and file.
But, given the fickleness of this electorate, the uncertainty of the health care debate and the stubbornly high unemployment rate, the president could just as quickly turn into a liability. His own clout will be on the line in the first midterm elections of his presidency. And the outcome is certain to shape the remainder of his first term, if not his likely re-election bid in 2012.
For now, it's unclear just how much Obama can do to prevent midterm election shellackings. Democrats lost recent statewide elections in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia even though he campaigned for them. Presidents typically lose House and Senate seats in their first midterm elections. And the party in power usually bears the brunt of voters' ire when the country is in turmoil.
Thus, another of the poll's findings may not bode well for Obama and his Democrats: A clear majority of Americans — 56 percent — now say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Democrat Benny Newman of Tulsa, Okla., laid the blame for the nation's ills on both Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress.
"Just bundle them in the same bag," said Newman, who at 79 just lost a job with a local public school district because of budget woes. "I don't think either one of them is interested in the general public. ... They're always stalling, playing politics, trying to jockey for a better position for their own re-election."
In recent weeks, Obama has increasingly blamed the ways of Washington for a lack of progress on his agenda — even though he's in the White House and his party is leading Congress. The disparity between his popularity and Congress' shows his pitch may just be working.
Obama's overall standing hasn't really moved since January. Neither have his ratings on health care and the economy.
But his marks have jumped on Iraq and Afghanistan. More than half of people approve of how he's handling the wars, with 55 percent backing him on Iraq and 57 percent supporting him on Afghanistan. That's compared with 49 percent for each two months ago. The new poll was taken during weekend elections in Iraq, where a U.S. troop drawdown is under way, and in the midst of a buildup in Afghanistan, as the U.S. notches victories in rooting out suspected terrorists.
By comparison, Congress' approval rating has dropped 10 percentage points since January, perhaps an indication that people are blaming lawmakers more than the president for gridlock that has paralyzed Washington on a host of fronts.
It is quite unusual for voters to tear down their own member of Congress. People often dislike the institution of Congress but usually support their own representatives. But not this year. Half said they wanted to elect someone other than their current congressman; only 40 percent wanted to re-elect their lawmaker.
"I don't think anybody up there is doing a good job. ... We need to get rid of them all and institute term limits," said Republican John Campbell, 52, of Del Rio, Texas, a warden at a federal detention center. He castigated Washington as full of "cronies" and Congress as a "bunch of entitled prima donnas."
"Washington," he said, "is broke."
As poor as the ratings are for Congress in general, people seem slightly more unhappy with Republicans than Democrats — another bit of potentially good news for Obama's party.
Just 30 percent approve of how Republicans in Congress are doing their jobs compared with 36 percent for Democrats.
Republicans still trail Democrats on the question of who should win control of Congress come November; 44 percent say Democrats, 38 percent say Republicans.
And the GOP has a slight disadvantage on two issues that voters deem among the most important — the economy and health care.
Still, Democrats are vulnerable, and perhaps nothing illustrates that vulnerability better than this: By 67 percent to 59 percent, more independents disapprove of Democrats in Congress than disapprove of Republicans. This matters because independents usually determine who wins elections. And they have been moving away from Democrats, after heavily supporting them in 2006 and 2008.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted March 3-8, 2010, by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,002 adults nationwide, and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.