April 8, 2009

Partisan Bickering Is Back, Says Public

Obama's Ratings Hold Steady, Trip Well-Received

Overview

Shortly before President Obama took office in January, the public was uncharacteristically optimistic that Republicans and Democrats would work together more to solve problems in the year ahead. Less than three months later, those expectations have faded and most see a return to partisan politics in Washington.

A majority (53%) currently says that Republicans and Democrats have been bickering and opposing each more than usual, while just a quarter (25%) say the two sides have been working together more. In January, twice as many (50%) said they expected Republicans and Democrats to work together more.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted March 31-April 6 among 1,506 adults reached on landlines and cell phones, also finds that 61% say they country is more politically divided than in the past – up 15 points since January.

There is no evidence that increased perceptions of a politically divided country have affected President Obama’s standing with the public. His overall job approval rating of 61% is largely unchanged from March (59%), and the early reviews for his first major overseas trip as president are positive. In the survey, conducted before Obama’s surprise visit to Iraq, 63% say Obama did either an excellent (28%) or good job (35%) in representing America’s interests on the trip; just 28% say he did only a fair (19%) or poor job (9%) in representing the nation’s interests.

Moreover, Obama garners considerably more confidence on the economy than either Democratic or Republican leaders in Congress. Fully 70% say they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in Barack Obama to do the right thing when it comes to fixing the economy. A majority (55%) also say they have at least a fair amount of confidence in congressional Democratic leaders. By comparison, just 38% voice the same degree of confidence in Republicans leaders in Congress.

While two-thirds of Americans (66%) say they are optimistic that Obama’s policies will improve economic conditions, a majority (54%) also believe his policies will reduce the budget deficit over the long term.

At the same time, there are no signs of overall improvement in the Republican Party’s image, or much of a narrowing in the wide gap in favorability between the GOP and the Democratic Party. Just 40% have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party, which is unchanged from January. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) have a positive view of the Democratic Party, compared with 62% in January.

Health Care, Education Spending Trump Deficit

In terms of budget tradeoffs, most Americans (59%) say they would place a higher priority on spending more money to make health care more accessible and affordable than on reducing the budget deficit. A nearly identical majority (58%) believes that spending more to improve education ranks as a higher priority than reducing the deficit.

However, opinion is more evenly divided over whether increasing funding to develop new energy technology should trump deficit reduction: about half (49%) say that spending on new energy technology is the higher priority while nearly as many say reducing the budget deficit (45%) is the higher priority.

On all three issues, most Democrats favor spending increases while most Republicans favor deficit reduction. The biggest partisan gap over budget priorities is with respect to health care. Nearly eight-in-ten Democrats (78%) see increased spending to make health care more accessible and affordable as a higher priority than deficit reduction, compared with 57% of independents and 36% of Republicans.

Seven-in-ten Democrats place a greater priority on spending more to improve education; 57% of independents and 41% of Republicans agree. Smaller percentages across the board view spending on new energy technology as a higher priority than deficit reduction: 58% of Democrats express this view, as do 49% of independents and just 32% of Republicans.

When all three questions are analyzed together, 30% of Americans prioritize spending over the deficit on all three issues – health care, education, and new energy technology – while just 17% prioritize deficit reduction in all three cases. But most Americans (53%) do not take a consistent position on increased spending versus the deficit and instead express different views depending on the issue.

Stricter Financial Regulation Backed

Six-in-ten Americans (60%) think it is a good idea for the government to more strictly regulate the way major financial companies do business, while 31% say tougher regulations are a bad idea. Most of those who support tougher regulations – 34% of the public – say this is something they strongly support; 21% say tougher regulations are good idea but say they have reservations about the proposal.

The vast majority of liberal Democrats (82%) view stricter regulations of financial companies as a good thing; 67% of liberal Democrats say they strongly support them. Among conservative and moderate Democrats, 73% regard more strict regulation as a good idea, but fewer than half (43%) say this is something they strongly support.

Republicans also are divided over placing tighter regulations on financial firms. A majority of moderate and liberal Republicans (52%) favor this proposal while just 33% of conservative Republicans agree. By about two-to-one (61% to 31%), more independents view stricter regulation of financial companies as a good idea rather than a bad idea.

Confidence in Political Leaders

When it comes to economic policy, Obama inspires substantially more confidence than do congressional leaders of either party. Seven-in-ten (70%) say they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in Obama when it comes to fixing the economy.

Substantially fewer (55%) say they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in Democratic congressional leaders to do the right thing when it comes to the economy. And Republican leaders in Congress fare even worse – just 38% say they are confident in the Republicans when it comes to fixing the economy, while most (57%) say they have not too much confidence or no confidence at all in their abilities.

While Democrats in Congress trail President Obama across all partisan groups, the confidence gap is most notable among independents. Seven-in-ten (70%) independents say they have at least a fair amount of confidence in Barack Obama when it comes to the economy while 49% say the same about Democratic leaders in Congress. Four-in-ten independents (40%) say they have confidence in Republican congressional leaders when it comes to fixing the economy.

Democrats express much greater confidence in their own party’s congressional leaders than do Republicans. Fully 87% of Democrats say they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in their party’s leaders when it comes to fixing the economy – far fewer Republicans (66%) express the same level of confidence in GOP congressional leaders.

Most people also believe that Republican leaders have not clearly articulated their opposition to Obama’s economic policies. While 54% of Americans say that Obama has clearly explained his policies, just 25% say that that Republican
s in Congress have clearly explained why they oppose his approach. Even among Republicans themselves, as many say their party’s leaders have failed to clearly articulate their position (42%) as say they have explained themselves clearly (41%).

Most See Obama Taming Deficit

Two-thirds of Americans are optimistic that Barack Obama’s policies will improve economic conditions in the country. This includes 91% of Democrats, 63% of independents and 39% of Republicans. This favorable outlook even extends to the budget deficit, which has been a contentious aspect of his overall economic platform.

By a 54% to 36% margin, more Americans are optimistic than pessimistic that Obama’s policies will reduce the budget deficit over the long term. As with views of the impact of Obama’s economic policies, there is a huge partisan gap in opinions about the impact his policies will have on the budget deficit. More than eight-in-ten Democrats (81%) say they are optimistic that Obama’s policies will reduce the deficit over the long term, compared with fewer than half of independents (47%) and just 26% of Republicans.

An analysis shows that optimism about whether Obama’s policies will improve the economy is more closely associated with his job approval rating than is optimism about whether his policies will reduce the budget deficit. The converse also is true: While 78% of those who are pessimistic that his policies will fix the economy disapprove of his job performance, a smaller percentage (60%) of those who are pessimistic about the deficit disapprove.

More Partisanship than in Bush’s First Year

The reversal in public views about the level of partisan cooperation in Washington has been stark, particularly when compared with opinions during President Bush’s first few months in office.

In January 2001, there was somewhat less optimism that Republicans and Democrats would work together more in the year ahead than there was just before Obama’s inauguration in January of this year (41% in January 2001 vs. 50% this year).

By May 2001, 34% said the two parties were working together more, a decline of only seven points from the percentage predicting improved partisan relations in January. In the current survey, by contrast, only 25% say the two parties are working together more to solve problems, down 25 points from the percentage predicting better relations in January of this year.

More Dems See Country as Divided

The belief that the two parties are working together more has declined sharply among Republicans, Democrats and independents since January. However, far more Democrats (33%) than Republicans (14%) see greater partisan cooperation.

By contrast, views about whether the country is more politically divided have changed dramatically among Democrats, but have been relatively stable among Republicans and independents. In January, a majority of Democrats (56%) said the country was not more politically divided than in the past, while 36% said it was more divided. Since then, however, the balance of opinion among Democrats has flipped: 58% say the country is more politically divided while 38% say it is not.

Obama Approval Steady

Currently, 61% approve of the way that Obama is handling his job as president while 26% disapprove. This is largely unchanged from March, when 59% approved and 26% disapproved.

Last month, Pew Research found that the partisan gap in Obama’s job approval ratings was the highest for any new president of the last 40 years. This gap remains about as large in the current survey: 91% of Democrats approve of Obama’s job performance compared with just 29% of Republicans. (For more, see “Partisan Gap in Obama Job Approval Widest in Modern Era”).

Congress Viewed More Favorably

Public evaluations of Congress have improved considerably since the beginning of the year. In the current survey, 50% say they hold a favorable view of Congress compared with 43% who express an unfavorable view.

Favorable ratings are up 10 points since January, when congressional favorability hit an all-time low in a Pew Research survey. Republicans and Democrats each express slightly better ratings of Congress than they did three months ago. However, the greatest shift in opinion has been among independents; in the current survey, 47% rate Congress favorably, up 15 points from January.

Cite this publication: “Partisan Bickering Is Back, Says Public.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (April 8, 2009) http://www.people-press.org/2009/04/08/partisan-bickering-is-back-says-public/, accessed on July 23, 2014.