The polled American: Insatiable, fickle and not happy about it

Are we getting what we deserve?

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The portrait of the electorate painted by recent polling puts a new grunt in disgruntled.

A synthesis of three national polls out on this month might read something like this: Americans’ approval of President Obama has plunged along with their views of almost every leader and institution in public life, while they continue to want their cake and eat it in many aspects of public policy.   

Something almost identical could have been written during the second terms of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush  -- and maybe Reagan.  Maybe this is the new status quo.  Maybe unpopular is the new popular.

Let’s look at the recent polls:

A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll done June 11-15 showed President Obama’s job approval rating one point away from his all-time low and his rating for handling foreign policy at an all-time low.  “Poll Shows Erosion in President's Support,” ran the Journal’s headline. 

Obama’s popularity ratings are also at an all-time low, with 41 percent feeling positive or somewhat positive toward him and 45 percent negative or somewhat negative.  That’s a dazzling fall from the 68 percent vs. 19 percent benchmark of January 2013.  Dazzling, and inevitable.

These numbers look like a disaster, except in the context of everything else.

Consider the political parties: 38 percent think positively about the Democratic Party, 40 percent negatively; Republicans score 29 percent to 55 percent.  The Tea Party weighs in at 22 percent to 41 percent. As unpopular as the President seems to be, his opponents are even less popular.

Only 32 percent of those polled think their representative in Congress deserves to be reelected, 57 percent want a new person. And 27 percent would vote for an independent or third party candidate if they could.  But of course we know from history that over 90 percent of incumbents will be reelected in the November midterms.

These findings amplify a dismal report on the confidence in government and public institutions from Gallup. We covered this poll in some depth in an earlier post, but the key chart is worth a second look:

Graphic: Gallup

Except for the military, no government institution inspires confidence in the public.  In this context, Obama blends right in.

Gallup also found that overall satisfaction with the “way things are going” near an all-time low for midterm election years

Graphic: Gallup

It has been a while since any real optimism or confidence reigned, in the polls at least.

A CBS News/The New York Times poll out this week gets at the fickleness of the electorate.   The poll also shows Obama’s job approval near his low and his foreign policy rating at its nadir.  This isn’t surprising since the poll was done while Iraq’s implosion was moving to the front page and top of the hour.   On his handling of Iraq,  37 percent approve, 52 disapprove.

So just what does the public want Obama to do?  Should the U.S. take the lead in Iraq?  Well, 37 percent say yes, but 58 percent say no. Was the war in Iraq worth it? A dominant 75 percent say no it wasn’t. Does the U.S have a responsibility to ensure stability there now? Not according to 57 percent of those polled.  Should Obama be doing more? Well, 41 percent think he’s doing the right amount, 29 percent think he should do more, 22 percent think he should do less.  What about sending those 300 military advisers, good idea? Yes, says 51 percent. Drones? Yes please, 57 percent say. Should we send some ground troops into Iraq? A huge 77 percent majority of Americans say no.

So what could the President possibly do that would garner public approval? Nothing.  The war in Iraq lost public support well before his election, he got American troops out and but did get any public credit or approval for that. 

It is understandable that Americans are frustrated even forlorn about the situation in Iraq; it is sensible that they don’t have clear opinions about what we should do – no one does. But it is naïve and immature to blame the president.  Indeed, 57 percent in the poll said the situation in Iraq is beyond our control.

The Times sent reporters back to talk to some people who participated in the poll. “I voted for him because he said, ‘Give me four more years and I will fix everything,’ but nothing is being fixed,” a Massachusetts woman said.

Well, to put it mildly, it isn’t super-realistic to expect a president to “fix everything” in a country of 350 million, in a global economy, on a planet of dwindling resources, populated by featherless-bipeds who have waged war upon each other since the dawn of recorded history.

But this is the Age of the Great Disgruntlement.

Historians rightfully scold pronouncements like that. But in this case, the claim has standing.

Public opinion research and sound polling have a relatively short history, less than a century. Within that history, we know that this is a time of general discontentment, that trust in institutions and leadership is consistently low and that pessimism exceeds what it has been in comparable economic periods.

Is this the new status quo?

Or maybe we should just stop polling.

Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for Scripps News. An experienced writer, reporter and author, Meyer was executive producer for the BBC's news services in America, NPR's executive editor and editorial director of CBSNews.com. Meyer also wrote a book on American culture and politics,  "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium"  (Crown Publishing/Random House, August 2008).

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