November 7, 2007

Public Dissatisfied with Democratic Leaders, But Still Happy They Won

Summary of Findings

A year after the Democratic Party won control of both houses of Congress, Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with the party’s congressional leaders. Just 31% approve of their job performance, down 10 points since February.

Despite these tepid ratings, most Americans (54%) say that they are happy that the Democrats won control of Congress in last year’s elections. That represents a modest decline since last November, but positive views of the Democratic congressional victory have remained stable since March. At least in part, this reflects the fact that Republican leaders are blamed about as often as Democratic leaders for Congress’ lack of productivity.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Oct. 17-23 among 2,007 adults, finds that the public gives Congress low marks for productivity. Overall, 43% say the current Congress has accomplished less than recent sessions, while just 5% say it has accomplished more; 42% say it has accomplished about the same as past sessions. These ratings are comparable with those for the Republican-led Congress in 2006, shortly before it was voted out of power.

Unlike last year, however, the public apportions the blame for Congress’s perceived lack of productivity fairly evenly. Among those who say Congress has been less productive than in the past, 26% blame Democratic leaders, up from just 10% a year ago. But about as many (30%) blame Republican leaders, while 34% blame both parties. In October 2006, fully 59% blamed Republican leaders for Congress accomplishing less than usual.

Dem Leaders Lose Favor

A majority of Americans (54%) disapprove of the job Democratic congressional leaders are doing, up sharply from February (36%) but consistent with July. Opinions of the Democratic congressional leadership mirror opinions of Republican congressional leaders in mid-to-late 2006. In October 2006, shortly before the power-shifting election, 33% approved of Republican congressional leaders, while 56% disapproved.

Though just more than half of Democrats (51%) approve of what their party’s leaders are doing, disapproval has more than doubled (16% to 35%) among Democrats between February and October, and half of that increase emerged between July and October. As the 110th Congress approaches the end of its first year, 56% of independents disapprove, up from 41% in February. More than three-quarters (76%) of Republicans disapprove of Democratic congressional leaders (up 18 points from February).

A majority of Americans (54%) say they are happy that the Democratic Party won control of Congress. As expected, there continue to be large partisan differences in opinions about the outcome of last year’s elections; 87% of Democrats are happy that the Democratic Party wrested control of Congress from the GOP, compared with just 16% of Republicans. Half of independents say they are happy that the Democratic Party gained control of Congress, although most independents (56%) disapprove of the job performance of Democratic congressional leaders.

Independents Blame Both Parties

Last year, the public gave the Republican-led Congress poor marks for productivity, and the ratings for the current Congress are equally low. Those who believe Congress has accomplished less than in the past are more divided than in October 2006 in their view of which party is to blame for the lack of productivity.

Compared with last year, independents are much more likely to say both parties are at fault: 49% volunteer that both parties’ leaders are responsible for Congress getting less done, nearly double the number in October 2006 (27%). Notably, only 18% of independents blame Democratic leaders; that is only a modest increase from October 2006 (11%), when Democrats were still in the minority.

Most Democrats who think the current Congress has gotten less done put the responsibility on Republicans (58%). Last year, when Republicans led both houses of Congress, 84% of Democrats blamed GOP leaders in Congress for its low productivity. Very few Democrats who think Capitol Hill accomplishments are down put the responsibility on their party’s leaders: 6% do in 2007, up from 2% in 2006. However, there has been a large increase in the proportion of Democrats volunteering that both parties are to blame: 24% say so now, up from 10% in 2006.

As expected, Republicans are more critical of the Democratic-led Congress than they were in assessing the Republican-led Congress a year earlier: 61% of Republicans who think this Congress has accomplished less than recent predecessors blame Democratic leaders for it. By comparison, just 16% of Republicans blamed the ruling Republican leaders last year, while 39% blamed Democratic leaders. About one-in-four Republicans (26%) say both parties are to blame, down from 38% in 2006.

More Favor Dems Getting Tougher on Iraq

The proportion of Americans saying Democratic leaders in Congress are not going far enough in challenging President Bush’s Iraq policies has been increasing fairly steadily since March, when 40% expressed this view; the October figure is 47%. The remainder of the public is divided over whether Democratic leaders have gone too far (21%) or have taken an approach that is about right (23%).

Partisan differences on this question are stark: Almost two-thirds of Democrats (65%) say party leaders are not going far enough in challenging the administration’s Iraq polices, up nine points since March. Just 21% of Republicans share this view. Among independents, 48% say Democrats are not challenging President Bush’s policies on Iraq enough, while 19% say Democratic leaders are going too far and 23% say they are handling the situation about right.

Party Images

In our year-ahead report on the 2008 election, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that the Democratic Party continues to hold substantial advantages on a number of traits related to empathy, the ability to bring about needed change, managerial competence and honesty. For the most part, these advantages remain about as large as they were in October 2006, despite the low grades that the public gives for the performance of Democratic congressional leaders. (See “A Year Ahead, Republicans Face Difficult Political Terrain,” Oct. 31, 2007.)

On the specific question of which party is better able to manage the federal government, the Democratic Party holds a 12-point advantage over the GOP; that is about the same lead the Democratic Party held on this trait a year ago, though somewhat narrower than its advantage in March of this year. During the last presidential campaign, in July 2004, about as many people said the Republican Party could better manage the federal government as said the Democratic Party (37% Republican Party/40% Democratic Party).