As President Barack Obama prepares to deliver his first State of the Union address Wednesday night, he will be speaking to an American public that’s fed up with Congress, the country’s two main political parties, and the federal government, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Only 28 percent believe the federal government is “working well” or even works “okay,” versus seven in 10 who think it’s “unhealthy,” “stagnant” or needs large reforms.
By comparison, in December of 2000 — during the height of the disputed Bush-Gore presidential election — 55 percent said the government was working well or okay.
What’s more, a whopping 93 percent believe there’s too much partisan infighting; 84 percent think the special interests have too much influence over legislation; nearly three-quarters say that not enough has been done to regulate Wall Street and the banking industry; and an equal 61 percent complain that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress aren’t willing to compromise.
And the percentage who believe the country is headed in the wrong direction now stands at 58 percent, the highest level of Obama’s presidency.
“The message is a big one,” said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “The message is, ‘We hate what’s going in Washington.’”
Public’s anger isn’t directed at Obama
Indeed, the NBC/Journal survey finds that nearly half of the country (48 percent) said last week’s stunning election in Massachusetts, in which Republican candidate Scott Brown won a Senate contest in one of the nation’s most Democratic-leaning states, was aimed at sending a message to Washington. Only 15 percent disagreed.
But if the public is fed up with Washington, its anger isn’t necessarily directed at President Obama.
Only 27 percent say they blame him for not being able to find solutions to the country’s problems. By contrast, 48 percent blame Republicans in Congress and 41 percent blame congressional Democrats.
“The president has problems,” Hart adds, “but the Congress has much bigger problems.”
Obama’s numbers, in fact, are virtually unchanged from last week’s poll, which was released on the day of the Massachusetts election.
The president’s approval rating inched up two points to 50 percent, while the number believing his health care plan is a good idea declined two points to 31 percent.
“This data set reminds us that the Scott Brown election has been a huge event in Washington, D.C.,” said McInturff, the Republican pollster. “But around the country, I think this polling would suggest that it had a modest effect.”
Focus more on the economy, less on health care
However, the poll also suggests the public wants Obama to refocus his priorities: 44 percent say he has given too much attention to health care, 16 percent say he’s given it too little attention and 38 percent say he’s given it the right amount.
On the other hand, 51 percent maintain he’s given the economy too little attention, compared with only 5 percent who say he’s given it too much attention and 42 percent who say he’s given it the right amount of attention.
Still, a majority of Americans continue to have high hopes for Obama. A combined 54 percent either say that he’s facing a short-term setback from which he’ll rebound or that he’s not facing a setback at all.
That’s compared with 42 percent who say he’s facing a long-term setback from which he’ll unlikely recover.
GOP’s enthusiasm edge
Looking ahead to this year’s midterm elections, 44 percent of registered voters say they prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress, versus 42 percent who want a GOP-controlled one. Last week’s survey showed a 41-41 percent tie on this question.
But Republicans continue to enjoy a significant enthusiasm advantage. Voters who are most interested in November’s midterms prefer a Republican-controlled Congress by a 49-41 percent margin.
Yet the poll also provides evidence that Obama might be more of an asset than a liability in November. Thirty-seven percent say their vote will be a signal of support for the president, while 27 percent say it will be a signal of opposition; 35 percent said it won’t signal anything about Obama.
The poll was conducted of 800 adults from Jan. 23-25, and it has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.