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Monday, May 3, 2010

The Cost of Running Down Washington

John Bresnahan and Jonathan Allen reported in Politico last week that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her staff are upset over Obama’s broad-based criticisms of Washington politics. Democrats are reportedly worried that Obama’s thrust will “boomerang” on their own members this fall.

Gallup data suggest that the basis for this type of concern has been apparent in recent months.

Congress’ approval ratings -- which had admittedly already sagged last fall through the health reform debate, fell a significant notch lower in February -- immediately following
President Obama’s State of the Union address. The drop was seen almost entirely among Democrats.

Why? One possible explanation is that, Obama admonished Congress 15 times (by my count) in his speech for such various faults as lack of action on his legislative agenda, for the influence of lobbyists, and for the partisan rancor on “both sides.” He praised the U.S. House of Representatives several times for passing certain bills, only to point out directly or indirectly that the legislation was held up in “the Senate.”

Essentially, Obama blamed Congress for holding up his agenda, thereby giving rank-and-file Democrats fodder for frustration with their own party. That frustration may have been building anyway, given the delays in passing healthcare reform. But the timing of the drop in Democrats’ approval of Congress in terms of when Obama delivered his State of the Union address suggests his speech was a factor.

Here are some examples of the types of comments Obama made that could be construed as critical of Congress, without cutting any slack for the Democrats:

• “I'm also calling on Congress to continue down the path of earmark reform. (Applause.) Democrats and Republicans. (Applause.) Democrats and Republicans. You've trimmed some of this spending, you've embraced some meaningful change. But restoring the public trust demands more.”

• “I knew that both parties have fed divisions that are deeply entrenched.”

• “To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills. (Applause.)”

• “Now, the House has already passed financial reform with many of these changes. (Applause.) And the lobbyists are trying to kill it. But we cannot let them win this fight.”

• “I am grateful to the House for passing such a bill last year. (Applause.) And this year I'm eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate. (Applause.)”

• “That's why I urge the Senate to follow the House and pass a bill that will revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families. (Applause.)”

I heard remarkably little from political observers about this anti-Washington subtext of Obama’s speech at the time. But it soon appeared as if many Americans had gotten the message and were reacting accordingly.

Within a week of the speech, Gallup polling found that approval of Congress among Democrats had fallen 15 percentage points below where it was in January,
from 45% to 30%. (It fell further -- to 24% in early March.) Approval of Congress among Republicans and independents didn’t change much -- probably because those figures were already quite low.

Passing the healthcare bill in mid-March helped repair Congress’ image somewhat among Democrats. Approval rose to 41% among this group. But it still trails the 50% and better range in which it fell for most of 2009. It’s easy to imagine that under different circumstances, the Democratic Congress would be basking in intra-party glory for its historic achievement in passing comprehensive healthcare reform, rather than struggling to achieve majority level approval from Democrats nationwide.

It will be interesting to see where Democrats’ approval of Congress registers in May. Gallup will have an updated reading by early next week. In the meantime, it's understandable that Pelosi and others are anxious about Obama continuing to air his frustrations with "Washington."


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