Today marks what was planned to be President Donald Trump's State of the Union address, now on hold until Feb. 5 after the shutdown-induced delay.
Speech or no speech, it's difficult at this juncture to assess the state of the union. The nation is in a three-week holding period, waiting to see if the government shutdown is permanently resolved with an agreement on immigration legislation. The state of the union is thus at this point a constantly moving target.
Earlier in January, in the middle of the shutdown, Americans' views on the state of the union were not great. Just 26% of Americans were satisfied with the way things are going in the United States. A significant majority, 72%, said they were dissatisfied.
The January reading was somewhat more negative than the average 33% satisfaction rating across the 12 months of 2018, likely reflecting the impact of the shutdown.
This dour attitude about the state of the union is not unusual. Over the past four decades, since Gallup began asking the question in 1979, the average satisfaction level has been 37%. Satisfaction averaged above the majority level during the mid-1980s -- the "Morning in America," mid-Reagan years -- and during the dot-com boom and 9/11 rally from the late 1990s through the early 2000s. Otherwise, a majority of Americans have typically said they're dissatisfied with the way things are going.
Americans' Approval of Congress and the President Is Low
Trump's job approval rating was at 37% in Gallup's same mid-shutdown poll, at the lower end of readings during the first two years of his administration. Approval of the job Congress is doing was at 20%, very low on an absolute basis but not abnormally so based on prior months' readings.
In the wake of the 2013 shutdown, approval of Congress fell to its all-time low (9%). What happens to both presidential and congressional approval ratings going forward is very much tied up with what Congress can do to resolve the immigration challenge before Feb. 15.
Americans Welcome Bipartisan Action on Major Issues
One of the results of the shutdown imbroglio, I believe, resonates in a positive way with the American public. That's the bipartisan, bicameral conference committee whose objective is to develop an acceptable legislative plan on border security.
Americans believe the way the nation is being governed is the most important problem facing the country today. Research shows that Americans want their elected officials to compromise and not stick to rigid principles. This conference committee is, in theory, doing just that. This is directly in line with what I think Americans want their elected officials to be doing at this point.
Immigration, a complex issue with many moving parts, is particularly appropriate for this type of bipartisan deliberation. Trump's singular focus on one solution -- building a wall -- is favored by about four in 10 Americans. There is stronger support (more than eight in 10) for allowing those who were brought to this country illegally as children to find a pathway to citizenship, and for allowing those living in the country illegally to find a pathway to citizenship. But the details on how to operationalize these and other possible immigration policies are by no means clear.
There are other examples of complex problems that Americans say are high priorities for Congress -- education, healthcare and entitlement programs -- and these are problems on which public opinion is quite mixed. In terms of healthcare, for example, there is divided support for the Affordable Care Act, and recent research by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows divided, and fluid, support for the increasingly discussed idea of a "Medicare for all" government-run healthcare plan. Research on education is equally complex. Determining the government's role in addressing each of these issues requires representatives to combine forces, use their collective wisdom and figure out how to proceed. A bipartisan, bicameral conference committee to address each of these isn't at all a bad idea.
There are government actions for which there exists strong, supermajority support from the public -- as I outlined last October, before the midterms. These, in theory, should require less debate: 1) Invest in infrastructure (one of Americans' highest priorities for their government); 2) invest in alternative energy, create higher emissions standards and do more to protect the environment; 3) enact gun purchase restrictions. Strong public approval for these actions means, by definition, that there is agreement on each across party lines.