First Thoughts: If you thought views about American politics couldn't get worse

If you thought views about Americans politics couldn’t get worse… NBC/WSJ poll shows Americans’ dissatisfaction with Washington has reached new heights… But who is going to get the message?... And what happens when they can’t even agree on what the message is?... Obama to deliver economic speech at 12:55 pm ET from Galesburg, IL, and another one from Warrensburg, MO at 5:20 pm ET… NBC/WSJ poll on race relations after the Zimmerman verdict… Weiner strikes again… A King-sized immigration problem for the GOP… McDonnell pays back Jonnie Williams… And a boxed-in Mitch McConnell.

*** If you thought views about American politics couldn’t get worse… : If you thought that Washington and American politics had an image problem before this week, just consider all the news that’s out today: Our new NBC/WSJ poll shows that the public’s dissatisfaction with Washington has reached new heights. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) has made an offensive comment that most undocumented immigrants in this country are involved in the drug trade. And we’ve learned that New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner (D) was engaged in another round of racy and lewd messages AFTER he resigned from Congress in 2011. Don’t underestimate the cumulative damage these stories might have on American politics -- at a time when the public already has little faith in their institutions. Now on to these individual stories… 


*** Who is going to get the message? At a time when Washington is battling over immigration and student loans, bickering (once again) about the health-care law, and gearing up for another showdown over the budget and debt ceiling, the American public has a simple message: “ENOUGH!” According to our NBC/WSJ poll, a whopping 83% of adults disapprove of Congress’ job, which is an all-time high in the survey. What’s more, President Obama’s job-approval rating (45%) has dropped to its lowest level since Aug. 2011, when the debt-ceiling showdown wounded almost every Washington politician. And nearly six in 10 voters (57%) say they would vote to defeat and replace every single member of Congress if they had such an option on their ballot -- another all-time high. “There is a palpable unhappiness with Washington,” says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D). “Outside the Beltway, voters are saying, ‘You don’t get it.’” And that’s probably the best context in which to view Obama’s hyped economic speech today in Galesburg, IL at 12:55 pm ET, as well as the Senate’s effort last week to approve of the president’s executive-branch appointments. The true political contest over the next several months might very well be: Who best gets the message that the public is sending? It explains why Obama is getting away from DC today and Friday. 

*** But what happens when they can’t even agree what the message is? Yet here’s the challenge in resolving these political standoffs: Politicians and the public can’t even agree on what they see as Washington’s problem. Asked to explain their dissatisfaction with DC, respondents in the NBC/WSJ poll cite -- in order -- 1) partisanship and the inability of Congress to get things done, 2) the middle-class being ignored, and 3) the Obama administration’s policies and leadership. But there’s a stark political divide: Democrats and independents point to partisanship and congressional gridlock as the chief culprit, while Republicans blame the president. Still, there are signs that Republicans are shouldering more of the blame for the situation in the nation’s capital: Just 22% believe the Republican Party is interested in unifying the country in a bipartisan way, versus 45% who say the same about Obama. And 56% of Americans think that congressional Republicans are too inflexible in their dealings with the president. Yet a plurality of GOP respondents say congressional Republicans are too quick to give in to Obama. Hence the problem: “In their mind, Republicans have been too quick to give in to Obama,” says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R). “For the average Republican House member, he or she is more likely to be concerned about a primary than general election.”

*** But happens when GOP leaders don’t have credibility with their base: So if you’re a Republican politician opposing the Obama White House and Democrats at every turn, you’re actually acting rationally. And here’s an additional problem: GOP leaders don’t have enough credibility with their base to move EVEN CLOSE to the middle. In our NBC/WSJ poll, House Speaker John Boehner gets a tepid 39%-18% fav/unfav rating from Tea Party supporters and an even lower 29%-22% score among conservatives. Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio -- who did move to the middle on immigration -- has seen his fav/unfav numbers among Tea Party supporters drop from 52%-8% in February to 47%-15% now. By comparison, Obama has more credibility with his base to move to the middle: His fav/unfav score is 82%-9% with Democrats and 80%-13% with liberals. 

*** Measuring race relations after the Zimmerman verdict: Americans in the NBC/WSJ poll aren’t only dissatisfied with Washington; they’re also down on the state of race relations in the country, especially after the Zimmerman verdict. Per the poll, 52% of all adults say that race relations are “very good” or “fairly good,” which is down from more than 70% of Americans who said this in past NBC/WSJ polls from 2009-2011. And 54% agree with the statement that America is a nation where people are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character -- down from 60% who agreed with this in 2009 and 2010. Responses to these questions also reveal divisions among racial and political lines: Just 19% of African Americans and 46% of Democrats think Americans are judged by the content of their character rather than by their skin color. By comparison, 54% of Latinos, 59% of whites, and 65% of Republicans believe this. In fact, our entire poll showed a CONSIDERABLE mood change among African American respondents (in a number of places), which our pollsters speculate helped contribute to Obama’s drop in his approval rating. According to the survey, 78% of African Americans approve of Obama’s job, down from 88% in June and 93% in April. The question is whether this is a temporary drop (due to the Zimmerman verdict) or something more structural. 

*** Anger at Washington at a time when the economy is improving: Here’s a final observation we’ll make about our NBC/WSJ poll: All of this dissatisfaction with Washington and America’s political actors comes as the U.S. economy is improving. While that improvement has been slow and hasn’t reached everyone, things are certainly much better than they were in 2008, 2009, and 2010. And that’s another reason why Obama is giving his hyped economic speech today -- the White House thinks it has received NO credit for the improving economy. 

*** Weiner strikes again: Now we turn to Anthony Weiner… There’s no doubt these new revelations hurt perceptions about his credibility and honesty. By sitting down first with People magazine and then the New York Times -- then running for NYC mayor -- Weiner made the implicit pledge with voters and the press that THIS WOULDN'T HAPPEN AGAIN. But now we learn he was sending racy and lewd message a year AFTER he resigned from Congress. The wrinkle here is the 100% support he received from his wife, Huma Abedin, which gives his campaign a heartbeat. And it’s not surprising the attention that Abedin is receiving -- here is a woman whose female role model is Hillary Clinton, who knows a thing or two about standing by her man. 

*** A King-sized problem for the GOP: As for Rep. Steve King’s (R-IA) derogatory comments about undocumented immigrants -- "for every one who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert" -- this is what many Republicans always feared about the immigration debate. And why many want to pass legislation just to make the issue GO AWAY. Indeed, every month that goes by only increases the chances of another damning comment. The longer immigration plays out doesn't help those who want reform to pass. But it also just destroys the GOP brand with Latinos, even when members from King’s party criticized his comments. Speaking of immigration, our NBC/WSJ poll shows that 44% of adults (including 49% of Latinos) say they would blame Republicans if Congress doesn’t pass legislation by the end of its current term. By comparison, 21% of respondents (including 21% of Latinos) would blame the president, and 14% would blame congressional Democrats. Additionally, 59% of all adults (and 79% of Latinos) believe the notion that immigration reform must wait until the border is secure – a view espoused by many Republicans in Congress – is an excuse to block reform, while only 36% say it’s a legitimate excuse.

*** McDonnell pays back Jonnie Williams: With so much political news over the past 24 hours, here’s another story worth noting: “Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, R, said Tuesday that he had repaid loans to a supporter of his, loans which have become the subject of ethics investigations into the governor,” NBC’s Mike O’Brien reports. “McDonnell said in a statement that he had repaid over $124,000 in loans to Jonnie Williams, Jr., the CEO of a troubled dietary supplements manufacturer. According to a release by McDonnell’s legal team, McDonnell repaid several loans – one to his wife, Maureen, for over $52,000, and two to the real estate company owned by the governor and his sister. Those loans totaled almost $72,000 in value.” By the way, Washington DC’s NBC affiliate will speak with McDonnell in an interview today… 

*** A boxed-in Mitch McConnell: Lastly, the AP reports that Louisville businessman Matt Bevin (R) today will formally announce his primary challenge against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And the news shows just how boxed in McConnell is right now. He’s getting a primary challenge in Kentucky, with a general-election candidate (Democrat Alison Grimes) waiting in the wings. Old-school senators are upset with his leadership, as a Democratic Super PAC is airing TV ads hitting him in his state. By the way, McConnell is ALREADY up with a TV ad hitting Bevin…">Click here to sign up for First Read emails.

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