PRINCETON, NJ -- Since April, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of Americans who say the tone and level of civility between Republicans and Democrats in Washington have gotten worse since Barack Obama was elected president, from 24% to 35%. The plurality of Americans continue to perceive no change in this regard, but that is down from 52% to 42%. About one in five say things have improved in this area, a percentage that has been stable since Obama took office.
These results are based on the most recent USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted July 17-19.
One of the central themes of the Obama candidacy was Obama's desire to bring a new style of governing to Washington, including fostering a greater sense of bipartisanship. In reality, that has not occurred, given nearly unanimous Republican opposition to most of Obama's and the congressional Democrats' policy initiatives -- in particular, the economic stimulus plan and healthcare reform.
The public seems to have noticed, as more Americans perceive Democratic-Republican relations in Washington to be deteriorating than said so in the earlier months of the Obama presidency. The decline may also reflect a more general decline in confidence in Obama, as evidenced by the drop in his approval ratings from the mid-60s to the mid-50s in recent months.
Much of that change is due to the views of rank-and-file Republicans. Now, a majority of Republicans, 59%, see the level of civility between the parties as getting worse. In April, 32% of Republicans believed this.
Independents' and Democrats' views have not changed much since April. Independents are most inclined to believe that inter-party civility is staying the same, but are nearly twice as likely to say it is getting worse as to say it is getting better. Democrats are more likely to see conditions as improving than deteriorating, but close to half of Democrats perceive no change.
Changing the Way Washington Works
During the campaign, Obama also promised to change the way things got done in Washington, positioning himself as an outsider with little experience in the capital, in contrast to his 2008 primary and general-election rivals, many of whom had served in Washington for decades.
When asked whether Obama has made progress in changing the way Washington works, Americans are evenly divided -- 49% say he has made progress; 48% say he has not. That's a slightly less positive evaluation than Americans gave him in April, near the 100-day mark of his presidency, when, by 53% to 45%, the public thought Obama was making progress.
Three in four Democrats believe Obama is making progress in changing Washington, but nearly as many Republicans take the opposing view. Independents are more likely to believe Obama has not made progress in changing Washington than to believe that he has.
Fostering a New Idealism
One of the stories of the 2008 campaign was the Obama candidacy's helping to bring many new voters into the political process, including young adults and racial and ethnic minorities. Some speculated that the Obama presidency might create a new spirit of idealism in the United States, similar to what occurred during John Kennedy's administration.
The poll finds that most Americans, 58%, agree that the Obama administration is creating new idealism in the country; 39% do not believe this is happening. There has been a slight diminishing of this view compared to the days just before Obama took office, when 66% believed the Obama administration would foster idealism among Americans.
Members of Obama's key constituencies -- young adults and minorities -- are especially likely to believe his administration is making Americans more idealistic.
Specifically, 71% of 18- to 29-year-olds hold this view, compared to 46% of Americans aged 65 and older.
Similarly, 67% of nonwhites, compared with 55% of whites, sense a new spirit of idealism in the United States brought about by the Obama administration.
The results on how much change the Obama administration has brought to the country thus far are mixed in the eyes of Americans. Most Americans do not believe the level of civility between Democrats and Republicans in Washington is improving, and a growing percentage (mostly Republicans) believe it is actually getting worse. Americans are about evenly divided as to whether the Obama administration is making progress toward changing the way Washington works, but they are more inclined to believe his administration is creating a new sense of idealism in the United States.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,006 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted July 17-19, 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.
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.