Americans seem to be having a crisis of confidence.
Thursday’s stock-market free fall--only slightly alleviated when Friday’s jobs report showed the unemployment rate dipping--dramatized the sinking feeling. At the end of a week when the U.S. government was brought to the brink of default for the first time in history and the economy appeared to be teetering on a second recession, poll after poll showed voters' faith in political institutions and politicians at abysmal levels.
- A record 82 percent of Americans disapprove of how Congress is handling its job, the highest since The New York Times began polling in 1977. That’s even higher disapproval than the ratings after the 1995 government shutdown.
- President Obama’s approval dipped to 42 percent, its lowest point ever, in the weekly average of Gallup’s track poll. Obama also hit a new low among independent voters.
- A United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll found that 58 percent have little or no confidence in the government’s ability to solve the major problems facing the country.
- Even the tea party has taken a hit. In a CBS/New York Times poll taken this week, 40 percent of those responding said they have an unfavorable view of the conservative insurgency, compared with 29 percent in April.
The downgrade by Standard & Poors of U.S. bonds late Friday and Saturday’s deadly crash of U.S. helicopter in Afghanistan have, if anything, darkened America’s mood.
“It’s an incredibly toxic environment,’’ said Bob Graham, the former senator and governor of Florida and onetime presidential candidate. “Voters are certainly prepared and equipped to deliver the message that they expect their public officials to act as grown-up adults, not petulant adolescents.’’
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Any recent glimmers of national unity seem to have been extinguished.
Remember how the January assassination attempt against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., sparked a national conversation about the decline of civility in public discourse? The recovering House member's brief appearance on the chamber's floor on Monday, while uplifting, was a stark reminder of how quickly all the resolutions to hold kinder, gentler political debates faded during the slugfest over the debt ceiling.
Remember how Osama bin Laden’s death gave voters a boost of confidence in Obama? Two months later, the Republican Party is questioning the president's leadership in harsher terms than ever, and his approval ratings are on the wane--although they're far better than those for Congress.
“It seems like they can’t even make the trains run on time anymore,’’ said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. “The two parties simply can’t sit across the table from one another and get the job done…. These guys looks like Keystone Kops.’’
While too early to predict how this widespread loss of faith in government could affect the 2012 elections, it’s more than likely that candidates who can credibly claim outsider status and run against Washington will have a leg up. Matt Bennett, a cofounder of Third Way, a group that promotes moderate politics and policy, said that the line of attack against government that was used so effectively by conservative candidates in 2010 creates a “vicious cycle.’’ He sees the public cynicism today as even more profound than the death of innocence following the Vietnam War and Watergate in the early 1970s.
“The loss of faith in government drives elected officials to act in such a reckless way that it drives that faith down even further. It becomes a vicious cycle in which small-government conservatives are feeding off antigovernment sentiment," Bennett said. "I think what people are really saying when they say they want less government is that they want Congress to act less stupidly.’’
One member of the Democratic administration, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, said she believes her former colleagues in Congress are viewed so unfavorably because many of the newcomers “don’t understand the role of government.’’
“The American public needs to make very clear while there are members at home during recess right now that if they’re not satisfied with what their priorities are, they know what they can do,’’ she said on Friday on MSNBC.
How the political parties respond to the throw-the-bums-out mentality will largely determine the course of the 2012 election. In an editorial in the Houston Chronicle, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called it “an opportunity for Republicans to win not only an election but also a mandate to govern.’’
That's a tall order for either party to claim in the doldrums of August 2011.