While Congress is busy addressing (subscription) as many issues as it can before the Independence Day recess, the rest of the country appears to be busy registering its growing discontent with Washington lawmakers.
Americans' confidence in Congress is tanking -- and at record numbers. Gallup's annual survey of public confidence in various institutions shows the federal legislature ranking the lowest out of the 16 institutions tested this year. And the scant 12 percent of respondents expressing a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in Congress constitutes the worst rating Gallup pollsters have recorded for any institution in the survey's 35-year history. Almost four in 10 respondents said they had "very little" confidence in Congress.
Respondents' positive perception of federal lawmakers has been languishing below 20 percent since the 2006 poll. Lawmakers have been below 20 percent in just one other period, a stretch in the early 1990s.
Congress' dismal approval rating is of a piece with Americans' gloomy assessment of the country's condition overall. Eight in 10 respondents in a new Newsweek poll said they are dissatisfied with the way things are going, with a mere 14 percent indicating they're satisfied. This is an 11-point jump from the last time pollsters asked this question, in the beginning of February. Newsweek trend data shows only one other time since 1985 when the rating edged past 80 percent -- during the recession of 1992, when an overwhelming 84 percent of respondents voiced their discontent with the state of the country.
Other institutions that received low approval ratings from respondents in the Gallup poll include the Supreme Court and the presidency. Perhaps due to the public's disagreement with the court's recent decision on Guantanamo Bay prisoners, only 32 percent of respondents said they placed much confidence in the nation's highest court. This is yet another one for the record books -- never before has discontent with the court sunk this low, and its confidence rating dipped below 40 percent only once before since the question was first asked in 1973.
President Bush is often cited as the Achilles' heel of Republicans running for Congress, not to mention John McCain's bid for the White House. It appears this is with good reason -- a mere quarter of respondents in the Gallup poll said they have a confidence in the presidency as an office, while a plurality of 41 percent said they had "very little" confidence in it.
Americans' increasing disgruntlement with an office currently held by a Republican apparently hasn't jaded their confidence in the institutions conservatives most often seek to be identified with, including the military and small businesses. More than seven in 10 of those polled said they have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military, and a full six in 10 showed the same love for small businesses.
Blurring The Lines That Divide
A majority of respondents told ABC News/Washington Post [PDF] pollsters that race relations in America are generally good, but trend data shows a growing gap between whites and blacks on this question. Fifty-three percent of whites rated relations positively, but just 36 percent of blacks did, a divide that has increased 7 percentage points since 2003. Moreover, within the last decade, blacks' perceptions of race relations showed a steep climb from 1997 to 2003, but they have since fallen 8 points.
The poll also finds that Americans have more familiarity with members of other races than they once did. More than nine in 10 black respondents said that they have a close friend or family member who is white, up 10 points since 2005, while there has been a 4-point increase in the number of whites who say the same of blacks, climbing to 79 percent. Despite improved awareness, however, three in 10 Americans are still willing to acknowledge that they harbor feelings of prejudice towards other races. Meanwhile, 51 percent reported no evidence of discrimination toward blacks in their community, a measure that has climbed 6 points over the last five years.
Blacks surveyed by ABC/Post held out hope that a Barack Obama presidency could help to repair race relations. Six in 10 said his candidacy will do more to help relationships between members of different races than to hurt them, a significantly higher proportion than the 38 percent of whites who agreed. A 43 percent plurality of whites maintained that the Illinois senator's run will not make much of a difference in terms of race relations.
But, in a possible sign of the changes that have taken place since the civil rights era just 40 years ago, being black no longer seems to be a bar to becoming president. Obama's favorability rating in the latest Newsweek poll rose 7 points over the last month to 62 percent, placing him significantly ahead of McCain's 49 percent favorability rating. Meanwhile, Obama's wife, Michelle, enjoys greater popularity than Cindy McCain, and 31 percent of respondents said Obama would make a more effective FLOTUS, compared with 25 percent for McCain.