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Digging Out: Public Still Pessimistic Despite Improving Economy

A "For Sale" sign is seen outside the boarded up entrance to the Central Falls Department of Parks and Recreation in Central Falls, Rhode Island August 1, 2011. Central Falls, one of a handful of U.S. cities and counties facing fiscal collapse in the wake of the economic recession, filed for a rare Chapter 9 bankruptcy on Monday. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS) BRIAN SNYDER / Reuters

Our new NBC/WSJ poll helps answer why the U.S. economy is improving -- 200,000-plus jobs created over the last six months, an unemployment rate that’s dropped from 10.0% to 6.2% -- but Americans are still so pessimistic about it. The reason: Many are still digging out from the Great Recession. According to our poll, a combined 71% say the recession personally impacted them “a lot” or “just some.” When asked if it’s STILL having an effect on them, 64% answer in the affirmative. Then there are these numbers in the poll:

  • 40% say someone in their household lost a job in the past five years;
  • 27% say they have more than $5,000 in student-loan debt for either themselves or their children;
  • 20% have more than $2,000 in credit card debt they are unable to pay off month to month;
  • and 17% say they have a parent or a child over 21 years old living with them for financial or health reasons.

Yes, the economy is improving: 50% in our poll say it is, and those who believe (incorrectly) that we’re still in a recession -- 49% -- is at its lowest percentage in years. But there is a difference between improving and feeling good. And our poll makes that crystal clear.

Public: Washington is making the economy worse!

But as Americans are still digging out of the Great Recession, they don’t believe Washington has grabbed a shovel. In fact, they think the political system is making things worse. Per our poll, 71 percent say the economic problems facing the country are due to the inability of elected officials in Washington to get things done to improve the economy. By comparison, just 23 percent think the problems are due to deep and longstanding issues with the economy. “The public seems have moved beyond the plaintive cry of ‘Feel our pain!’ to the more angry pronouncement of ‘You are causing our pain!’” said NBC/WSJ co-pollster Fred Yang (D). Overall, a whopping 79 percent of respondents are dissatisfied with the U.S. political system, including nearly half who are very dissatisfied. And that dissatisfaction carries over to the nation’s political actors. President Obama’s approval rating has dropped a point to 40% -- his all-time low in our poll. Congress’ approval rating is just 14%, and the public holds congressional Republicans in lower regard (a fav/unfav of 19%-54%) than congressional Democrats (31%-46%).

Fed-up Nation

So you take these two things -- a public that’s still digging out of the Great Recession, and Americans who have lost faith in the political system -- and you get a Fed-Up Nation. According to the poll, 71% think the country is headed in the wrong direction. What’s more 57% of respondents told our pollsters that something out there upsets them enough to carry a protest sign for a day. Some of the different examples of signs they’d carry:

  • “Impeach Obama,” said a female Republican from Ohio.
  • “Republicans and Congress, do your job,” countered a male Democrat from Kentucky.
  • “Close the borders,” added a Republican-leaning female from Massachusetts.
  • “Stop bombing people in Ukraine and Gaza and Israel,” said a male Democrat from Texas.
  • “Our government needs an overhaul,” said a female independent from Florida.

Folks, all of this is a reminder of the unchartered territory we’re in right now. You have an American public that has been this upset for this long. It voted for change in three of the last four elections. And it seems more fed up than ever. That could produce some surprising results in November, which brings us to…

2014 shaping up to be a good GOP year, but it doesn’t look like a wave

With the midterm elections now less than three months away, the NBC/WSJ poll finds 44 percent of voters preferring a GOP-controlled Congress, and 43 percent preferring a Democratic-controlled one. The good news for Republicans, per NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R): An incumbent president in the low 40s and seven-in-10 Americans thinking the country is on the wrong track is typically good for the opposition party. But the not-so good news for the GOP: High interest in the elections is down from past midterm elections. And Republicans continue to trail among women by double digits. November, McInturff says, is shaping up to be “a good Republican cycle, but not like the wave elections we saw in ’06 or ’10.” Another way to put it: The public just isn’t comfortable rewarding one party over the other. On paper, that should mean anti-INCUMBENT cycle. But for that to happen, you’d need engagement from independents, and one thing our poll found is that independents, in particular, are showing less interest in this election than they did in ‘06 and ’10. And so, a base election appears to be in the offing, which is why the GOP is favored to do better, for now, just not great.

Foreign and border crises taking a toll on Obama. Here’s a final point to make about our new poll: It shows the toll all the foreign-policy crises has taken on President Obama. Here is how the public has viewed how the United States has dealt with these overseas -- and border -- stories over the past few weeks:

  • The commercial airline jet shot down in Ukraine: 26% satisfied, 37% dissatisfied
  • The conflict between Russia and Ukraine: 23% satisfied, 43% dissatisfied
  • The civil war in Syria: 18% satisfied, 37% dissatisfied
  • The conflict between Hamas and Syria in Gaza: 17% satisfied, 45% dissatisfied
  • The rise of the terrorist group ISIS in Iraq: 14% satisfied, 42% dissatisfied
  • The immigration problem with children from Central America illegally crossing the border: 11% satisfied, 64% dissatisfied.

How else do we know these foreign crises are taking a toll on Obama and his administration? His economic approval rating is 42%, but his foreign-policy handling is just 36%.

Two takeaways from last night’s primaries

OK, enough on our poll. Here are the results from last night’s primaries, and there were no real surprises. In Kansas, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) defeated Tea Party challenger Milton Wolf, 48%-41%; Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) got just 63% against nominal opposition; Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) survived; as did Rep. Mike Pompeo against former Rep. Todd Tiahrt, 63%-37%. In Michigan, meanwhile, accidental incumbent Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI) lost -- as expected -- to challenger Dave Trott. And Tea Party Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) beat back his primary challenge, 57%-43%. Our two takeaways from last night’s contests. One, Roberts was VERY vulnerable (in fact, more vulnerable than either Lindsey Graham or Mitch McConnell turned out to be), but the national party helped him across the finish line. (Had it not been for that X-ray oppo hit on Wolf, it’s likely Roberts would have lost.) And two, the Kansas Republican Party, as we wrote yesterday, is seriously fractured. No GOP incumbent who received a primary challenge got more than 65% of the vote. And 33% of Republicans voted AGAINST Brownback. This is a divided state party, and the general is less than three months from now. By the way, national Republicans ought to take a look at Kansas and ask themselves: Is this a precursor of things to come nationally for them, as the ideological and populist war gets set to hit the big stage in 2016

Is Walsh going to drop out?

There is a lot of smoke that appointed Sen. John Walsh (D-MT) could drop out of his Senate race after his plagiarism scandal. Politico: “Montana Sen. John Walsh is engaged in internal deliberations with his political team about whether to stay on the ballot this year, sources said Tuesday, in the wake of a plagiarism scandal that has tarnished the appointed Democratic lawmaker’s standing. Senate Democratic leaders in Washington and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are not playing an active role in the discussions, allowing the situation to be sorted out between Walsh and his Montana Democratic colleagues, according to people familiar with the matter. The talks come ahead of a key deadline on Monday, the last day for a candidate to withdraw from the race.”

Bubba stumps for Alison Grimes in Kentucky

Lastly, Bill Clinton stumps for Alison Grimes today in Kentucky. And Bubba’s appearance in the Bluegrass State is a reminder how many of the Democrats running this cycle -- especially given the cycle’s geography (AR/KY/LA/NC) -- are running as Clinton Democrats. Of course, you don’t have to go back far, to 2006 and 2008, when the most popular politician and surrogate in the party was Barack Obama. Just shows you how things always change.

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