Public approval of Congress has edged up a bit now that Democrats are back in control, but it’s still nothing to write home about. Approval for the way Congress is handling its job rose to 32 percent in the latest AP-Ipsos poll, up from a meager 27 percent a month earlier.
That puts Congress on par with President Bush — whose 32 percent approval rating represents a new low for him in AP-Ipsos polling.
The Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (news, bio, voting record), took control of Congress when the new session began on Jan. 4.
The softening of attitudes toward Congress suggests legislators may have an opportunity to improve their standing in the new year, but there appears to be little opening for Bush to move up similarly, public opinion experts believe.
“The question for Nancy Pelosi and Mr. Reid and the Democrats is whether they show the American public they can govern in a responsible way,” said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University. Bush has less chance for improvement, Thurber said, because the unpopular war in Iraq is “the driving issue” in assessing his performance.
Congress typically gets fairly low approval ratings, although individual legislators tend to receive better reviews.
Congressional approval hit a low of 18 percent in March 1992, according to the Gallup organization, and the institution was particularly unpopular from 1992 through 1994. Its popularity increased from 1995 to 2001, peaking after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
It’s been downhill ever since, and by 2006 congressional approval was back in the 20s, just as in 1993 and 1994.
Jackie Imler, 51, of Versailles, Mo., was among those polled this week who disapproved of Congress’ job performance, but she said she’s hopeful that will change.
“I think in the past few years, things have gone towards big business and not the middle class, so I’m hoping things will turn around with the new Congress,” she said.
Robert Shapiro, a political scientist and public opinion expert at Columbia University, cautioned that congressional leaders need to work to keep disagreement over what to do in Iraq from spilling over into broader partisan gridlock.
“The danger for everyone, Democrat and Republican, is that this division on the war leads to partisan conflict of the sort Democrats wanted to diminish after the last election,” Shapiro said.
John Mueller, an Ohio State University political scientist and author of “War, Presidents and Public Opinion,” said that Bush’s ratings are “basically hopeless” even if the situation in Iraq improves, because people already feel the war’s cost has been too high.
Legislators can thank Americans who describe themselves as Democrats for the improvement in their report card this month: In December, 19 percent of Democrats approved of Congress, compared with 33 percent of Republicans. In this month’s poll, 28 percent of Democrats approved of Congress; the GOP number was about the same, at 32 percent.
Other groups that showed relatively large increases in their approval ratings for Congress included adults aged 35 and older, Midwesterners and Westerners, single women and white evangelical Christians.
The telephone poll of 1,002 adults was conducted Monday through Wednesday and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.