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Poll: Public frustrated at Congress, political parties

"It’s a 'Jet Blue' election. Everyone is frustrated," says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. "And everyone is headed for the emergency exit."
/ Source: NBC News

To borrow the famous line from the 1976 film "Network," Americans are mad as hell at Washington — and they’re not going to take it anymore.

That, at least, is the conclusion from the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which finds:

  • that less than half the country approves of President Obama's job;
  • that the percentage believing the current Congress is either below average or among the worst is at an all-time high;
  • that the number viewing the Republican Party favorably is at an all-time low;
  • and that the Democratic Party doesn’t fare much better.

What's more, nearly six in 10 respondents still say the country is headed in the wrong direction, and almost two-thirds think that the U.S. economy has yet to hit rock-bottom.

And it's unlikely those attitudes will change before the midterm elections that will take place less than three months from now. 

"I think it’s a ‘Jet Blue’ election. Everyone is frustrated," says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. "And everyone is headed for the emergency exit."

One problem solved, others still remain
According to the poll, President Obama’s job approval rating stands at 47 percent, which is up two points from June. But that’s only part of the story.

With the stoppage of the Gulf Coast oil leak, 50 percent now say they approve of how the president has handled the spill’s aftermath. That’s a shift from June, when just 42 percent approved and 50 percent disapproved.

"People haven’t turned in a personal way against him," Hart says. "His numbers, as they’ve gone up on the Gulf [spill], sort of say that he will not be like Bush where Hurricane Katrina took him under."

Yet, while those numbers have improved, the public’s confidence in Obama’s handling of the Afghanistan war — after the highly publicized leak of documents pertaining to the war’s progress, and after more U.S. casualties there — has declined.

By a 45-44 percent margin, Americans now disapprove of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan, which is a shift from March, when the public approved, 53-35 percent.

Perhaps more troubling for the White House, 52 percent say they disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy — the highest disapproval ever for Obama on this question.

Overall, 40 percent think the country is worse off since he became president; 31 percent think it’s better off; and 28 percent think it’s in the same place.

That said, seven in 10 believe Obama has met or exceeded their expectations as president. But strong majorities say he’s fallen short on changing business as usual in Washington (65 percent), on jump-starting the economy (66 percent), on addressing the budget deficit (67 percent), and on reducing spending (70 percent).

Down on Congress and the political parties
While Obama’s overall approval rating remains lukewarm at 47 percent, it’s still enviable to those on Capitol Hill.

A combined 60 percent say that this year’s Congress is either below average or one of the worst in history — the highest percentage in the history of the NBC/WSJ poll.

By comparison, 31 percent say it has been average, and only 6 percent believe it has been above average or one of the best.

In addition, a whopping 72 percent disapprove of Congress’ job.

The political parties don’t fare much better. Just 33 percent have a positive view of the Democratic Party, versus 44 percent who have a negative view.

As for the Republican Party, only 24 percent see it positively — the GOP’s lowest-ever rating in the poll — while 46 percent see it negatively.

And for the first time in the survey, the Tea Party movement has a net-negative rating, with 30 percent viewing it positively and 34 percent viewing it negatively.

GOP gains ground on the economy
Despite the tepid esteem overall for the Republican Party, Republicans have made significant gains on the issue most likely to shape the outcome of the November elections and beyond – the economy.

In July 2008 — during the presidential campaign — Democrats held a 16-point advantage (41-25 percent) on the question of which party is better trusted to address economic issues. A year later, their advantage fell to six points (35-29 percent). And in March, the parties were even (31-31 percent).

Now, Republicans hold a three-point edge (34-31 percent) on this question.

Republicans have made these gains at a time of increased economic pessimism. According to the poll, 64 percent believe the economy has a ways to go before it hits rock bottom, which is an 11-point increase since January.

But can the GOP gain ground in November?
Republicans are hoping to capitalize on the national mood of economic discontent in the November midterm elections.

"The economic story is a vise on the Democratic Party that will lead to a very large electoral night for Republicans," said McInturff, the GOP pollster.

The NBC/WSJ survey shows Democrats with a one-point advantage on the generic ballot, with 43 percent preferring a Democratic-controlled Congress and 42 percent preferring a Republican-controlled Congress.

This is a slight change — though within the margin of error — from June, when Republicans held a two-point advantage here (45-43 percent).

But among those expressing a high interest in voting in November, the GOP’s edge increases to 11 points, 50-39 percent. That is down, however, from the Republicans’ 21-point lead in June, 56-35 percent.

The NBC/WSJ poll was taken of 1,000 adults (200 by cell phone) from Aug. 5-9, and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.