Less popular than Bush? Not exactly

Parsing the polls and dismantling a GOP talking point on Democrats in Congress.

Published October 2, 2007 1:54PM (EDT)

It's a standard talking point among Republicans and their allies in the blogosphere: The president's approval ratings may be low, but Congress' approval ratings are even lower.

We've always thought it was a meaningless, if not misleading, claim: Yes, the public holds Congress in relatively low esteem, but it's easy to find a gigantic majority of unhappiness on a subject so broad and undifferentiated. When people say they disapprove of Congress' job performance, do they mean that they disapprove of the agenda the Democrats are pursuing and that they wish Democrats would do more to, say, stop the war? Or do they mean that they're angry about the way the Republicans are obstructing the Democrats' agenda or, say, handling the likes of David Vitter and Larry Craig?

The media often exacerbates the problem. The Associated Press reported earlier this year -- and this is a pretty frequent phenomenon -- that "people think the Democratic-led Congress is doing just as dreary a job as President Bush." But the poll question on which the AP based that conclusion didn't say anything about the Democrats or their control of Congress. What it said was: "Overall, do you approve, disapprove or have mixed feelings about the way Congress is handling its job?" Lots of people said they disapproved, but the question in question didn't ask why and didn't focus on the Democrats' control.

All of which is a long way of pointing to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll out today. The poll puts President Bush's approval rating at just 33 percent, tied with his "career low" in the Post/ABC poll. The White House and its blogging allies can still take comfort in the fact that Bush's number is better than the 29 percent approval rating Congress gets, but only until they read the next paragraph in the Post's report:

"Despite discontent with Congress this year, the public rates congressional Republicans (29 percent approve) lower than congressional Democrats (38 percent approve). When the parties are pitted directly against each other, the public broadly favors Democrats on Iraq, health care, the federal budget and the economy. Only on the issue of terrorism are Republicans at parity with Democrats."

Short version: Congressional Democrats' approval ratings are, in fact, higher than the president's.

Now, a five-point lead over rock bottom is hardly reason to celebrate, especially in light of the fact that congressional Democrats' approval ratings have been dropping pretty steadily since they won control of the House and the Senate in November. But the Post/ABC poll does rebut the GOP talking point, and it sheds at least a little light on the more specific views underlying the general approval/disapproval ratings. Fifty-five percent of the public say that congressional Democrats haven't gone far enough yet in opposing the war in Iraq; only 35 percent say they've gone too far. And of the people who say that Congress has accomplished "not much" or "nothing" this year, 51 percent put the blame on Bush and the Republicans in Congress; only 25 percent blame the Democrats.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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