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As New Congress Nears, Americans conflicted on results of midterms

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With presidential and Congressional ratings still low, only one in four U.S. adults are confident America's divided government will do what needs to be done for the country.

A new year is on the horizon – and with it a new U.S. Congress, with Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the weeks since the midterms the pundits have all provided their respective two cents as to the reasoning behind the election results and what it will mean for the political landscape and the United States as a whole. But what do the American people think? When asked in a Harris Poll in a broad manner about the recent congressional elections, a third each believe the outcome is a good thing (33%) and a bad thing (34%) for America, with an additional third unsure (33%).

While a predictable majority of Republicans see it as a good thing (67%) and an equally foreseeable majority of Democrats see it as a bad thing (58%), Independents are split: 31% each characterize the results as a good thing and as a bad thing, with the remaining 38% not sure.

"Americans are divided on whether President Obama will try to work with Republicans in Congress."

Americans remain divided when asked more specifically whether it is good or bad for the country to have a president and a majority in Congress belonging to different parties, with 33% seeing it as good, 31% as bad and 36% unsure. The executive and legislative branches of our government have spent much of their time at one impasse or another in recent years, and this may have contributed to the worsening perception of a divided government. The 33% seeing it as good represents a six point decline from the 39% recorded in December 2010, the last time the question was asked; meanwhile, the 31% perceiving it as bad represents 8 points' growth from December 2010's 23%.

Collaboration concerns

One factor which may be leading many Americans to question whether a divided government will be an effective one is collaboration – or rather, a lack thereof.

Americans are divided on whether President Obama will try to work with Republicans in Congress, with 46% agreeing he will and 44% disagreeing; 10% are unsure. Political breakouts on this question show expected leanings, with 75% of Democrats feeling he will, 78% of Republicans feeling he won't and Independents divided (43% agree that he will while 44% disagree).

  • More telling is the drop in this perception compared to December 2010, just after President Obama's re-election; the 46% believing the president will try to work with Republicans in Congress represents a 16-point drop since the 62% observed at that time.

While Americans may be divided on whether Obama will try to work with Republicans in Congress, nearly six in ten Americans (58%) concur that Republicans in Congress will not try to work with him; 31% - down 6 points from 37% in December 2010 – feel Republicans in Congress will attempt to work with the president.

  • Just over half of Republicans (52%) anticipate their party-mates in Congress will try to work with the president, while majorities of both Democrats (75%) and Independents (58%) disagree.

When you add up all this uncertainty given the partisan divisions between the White House and Congress, it may not come as a surprise that only a fourth of Americans (25%) are confident that the government will do what needs to be done for the country; two-thirds of Americans (67%) are not confident, while 8% are unsure. Confidence is especially low among Independents (19%, vs. 31% Republicans and 27% Democrats).

Room for improvement – lots of it

Americans' lack of confidence that their leaders will be able to work together may be reflective of poor impressions of these leaders overall.

The survey – which was fielded prior to President Obama's decision to ease restrictions on Cuba last week – found a third of Americans (33%) giving the president positive ratings on the overall job he's doing and two-thirds (67%) assigning negative marks. Looking more specifically at how he's doing in regards to the economy, 34% give the president positive ratings, 66% negative. Positive ratings are down a bit from November, when 35% each gave him positive ratings overall and for the job he was doing on the economy.

It's unlikely to surprise anyone following politics to hear that positive ratings for Congress continue to hover in the single digits (7% to be precise, down slightly from 8% in October), while a strong majority of Americans (93%) give them negative marks. The only marginal gift under Congress' collective tree this month is that their positive ratings are up a bit from December of last year, when only 5% gave them positive marks.

  • No major surprises emerge when looking at approval ratings along political lines – majorities of Democrats give the president positive marks for his job performance both overall (62%) and in regards to the economy (61%), while majorities of both Republicans (94% both overall and economy) and Independents (69% overall, 67% economy) give him negative marks on both these measures.
  • Also unsurprising is the uniformity with which Americans rate Congress negatively (94% Republicans, 91% Democrats, 94% Independents).

Given all of these negative and pessimistic responses, it will likely surprise few to learn that seven in ten Americans (70%) believe things in the country have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track, while three in ten (30%) think that things are going in the right direction.

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