PRINCETON, NJ -- President Barack Obama came to office making the time-honored promise to raise the level of political discourse in Washington, but thus far, most Americans don't see that his promise is panning out. According to a new USA Today/Gallup poll, as many Americans think the "overall tone and level of civility" between Republicans and Democrats in Washington has gotten worse since the election as say it has improved: 23% vs. 21%. Half say it has stayed the same.
Last week's negotiations over the economic stimulus package in the U.S. House of Representatives, ending in a nearly straight party-line vote, offered Americans their first good look at Republicans and Democrats interacting during the Obama administration. In its aftermath, the majority of all three party groups think the political tone in Washington has remained about the same since Obama's election.
Beyond that, by nearly 2 to 1, Democrats are more likely to say the tone has improved, rather than gotten worse: 28% vs. 15%. However, by an even wider margin, 36% vs. 10%, Republicans are more likely to believe the tone has gotten worse. Independents are about evenly split in their perceptions.
"Staying the same" isn't necessarily a negative assessment of civility in Washington, particularly because public attitudes about politics can be highly jaded. Nevertheless, given that the political climate has had such bad press through much of the last two administrations, from Bill Clinton's through George W. Bush's, and that Obama has made a point of trying to improve it, it would be difficult to argue that the status quo is positive.
The Jan. 30-Feb. 1 poll included a follow-up question for those who say the political climate is staying the same or getting worse, asking them which party in Washington is more to blame for the lack of improvement. Overall, 41% of this group blames the Republicans, 30% blame the Democrats, and another 30% fault both parties equally or blame neither party.
Among Americans who say the tone and level of civility in Washington has stayed the same under Obama, 45% blame the Republicans in Washington while only 22% blame the Democrats. However, among those who believe the tone has gotten worse (disproportionately Republican in party affiliation), nearly half (49%) blame the Democrats while 32% blame the Republicans.
In the category of small favors, Obama can feel gratified that a slight majority of Americans believe the political tone in Washington hasn't grown any worse under his presidency. But given his efforts at bipartisanship, including traveling to Capitol Hill to meet with Republican leaders and even hosting a bipartisan Super Bowl party at the White House, he could well be disappointed in the finding that as many Americans say the political climate has gotten worse since his election as say it has improved.
All in all, the acrimony between Republicans and Democrats within the House last week -- perhaps amplified across talk radio -- seems to be carrying the moment. As a result, the new poll finds a higher percentage of Republicans saying the political tone is worsening (36%) than of Democrats saying it's improving (28%). With the Democrats controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, it is unlikely that rank-and-file Republicans will sense a positive change in the political climate unless more rank-and-file Democrats come to that conclusion.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,027 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
For results based on 740 national adults who say the tone in Washington has not improved, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.