WASHINGTON - Americans say they voted for change and are hoping for change, but they expect business as usual.
That’s one of the messages out of Wednesday's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the first survey from the two news organizations after Democrats lost six Senate seats and at least 61 seats in the House, the worst losses for either party since World War II.
According to the poll, almost seven in 10 registered voters say they voted in the midterm elections with the hope of seeing change. By a two-to-one margin, they say the election results — and the resulting divided government — are good for the country.
But they are doubtful of just how much change will actually take place.
Almost three-quarters (73 percent) say there either will not be much change or just some change. And 76 percent believe the country is headed for a period of division with the parties showing little willingness to work together or compromise.
“The message emerging from this survey is Americans want to hit the Washington reset button,” said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the poll with Republican pollster Bill McInturff, “but they’re skeptical cooperation can replace combat and that progress can supplant gridlock.”
Obama’s ‘strong core pulse’
The country sees President Barack Obama as more likely to show a willingness to work with Republicans than vice-versa. Almost 70 percent said Obama is likely to work with Republicans versus just 45 percent who said the same of the GOP's likelihood of reaching across the aisle.
But that’s the way the Republican base likes it, according to the poll.
Although the country, overall, is about evenly split on the question of whether elected officials should compromise or stick to their campaign positions, the large majority of Republicans say they prefer the latter.
And the majority of Americans don’t want the president to take the lead role in setting policy for the country — they want Congress to do it.
Just 39 percent said they want Obama to set the nation's policy agenda. But that's still higher than what respondents said of Bill Clinton in 1994 after Democrats suffered major losses in the House — and of George W. Bush in 2006, when Republicans lost control of both chambers.
The only time in the poll’s history that a plurality of respondents said they wanted the president to set the agenda was after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Obama’s job approval rating in this poll ticked up slightly to 47 percent approving and 47 percent disapproving. That’s the first time since May that more people didn’t disapprove of the job he was doing than approved.
“It’s a reminder again … for a guy who took a shellacking, he’s got a pretty strong core pulse,” McInturff said, citing Obama’s strong support among a core constituency of younger women, blacks, Latinos, young voters, voters in the West, and under-30 urban moderates. “This is a president that retains political standing.”
‘Worst is behind us’ on economy
Many in the poll remain pessimistic about the direction of the country. Just 32 percent think the country is headed in the right direction versus 58 percent who believe it is off on the wrong track. That's slightly improved from last month’s poll just before the election.
But there is a glimmer of optimism.
For the first time in this recession, more believe “the worst is behind us” (60 percent) than believe the worst is yet to come (35 percent). That is a marked improvement since August, just three months ago, when the country was evenly split on the question. And it's a dramatic turnaround from the weeks after the fall of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, when 75 percent of respondents said the worst was yet to come.
Debt commission suggestions start out unpopular
Americans sent a clear message that they want to cut spending. Two-thirds of voters said it was a major reason they voted for a candidate in the midterm elections.
But few appear to want to make sacrifices to cut the nation’s long-term debt and deficits, according to the poll.
“In an era when we don’t believe we can work across party lines,” McInturff said, “we found a way to unite everybody — which is producing a deficit commission that managed to irritate every different political constituency.”
After being read a paragraph outlining some of the suggestions to reduce deficits over the next 10 years, as laid out by the chairmen of Obama’s bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, just 25 percent of respondents said the plan was a good idea.
Highlighting just how difficult this issue is:
- 70 percent say they’re uncomfortable cutting spending on Medicare, Social Security, and defense spending.
- 59 percent say they’re uncomfortable raising taxes on gas, limiting home mortgage deductions, and changing corporate tax rates.
- 57 percent say they’re uncomfortable raising the retirement age to 69 – over the next 60 years. The retirement age is currently 67.
Those who say they’re most uncomfortable with these suggestions — those who are against all three — make up a group of strange bedfellows who are rarely aligned on policy matters: core Republicans and Tea Partiers as well as blacks, Latinos, union members, and suburban women.
Among the most comfortable with these proposals (meaning they are for at least two of these three) are urban and suburban men with college degrees, Northeasterners, households making more than $75,000 a year, and liberal Democrats.
But, despite the unpopularity of the commission's ideas to cut spending, 30 percent of respondents say they're still undecided on the plan — a figure that Hart and McInturff stress to show that public opinion on deficit reduction can still be moved.
A split on taxes
The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll also showed a divide on the Bush tax cuts, which expire in two months.
The tax cuts are a priority of the Obama administration and the so-called lame-duck Congress, because taxes will go up in January if Congress doesn’t act. Obama has said he wants tax cuts for the middle class to be extended permanently. Republicans say they want them permanently extended for everyone, including the highest-income earners.
Forty-nine percent of poll respondents want to eliminate all the tax cuts (10 percent) or just the ones for those making more than $250,000 per year (39 percent); 46 percent want to keep them in place for all income brackets for at least a year to three years.
Who’s looking out for the middle class?
Speaking of the middle class, whom did people say most represents middle-class values?
No one comes out particularly well, but at the top of the list was Bill Clinton.
Just over half of respondents say that the former president represents the middle class fairly or very well. About 45 percent say the same of Obama.
But who do Americans think is worst for the middle class? Sarah Palin. Almost 70 percent said that Palin represents the middle class "not very well" or only just "somewhat well."
Also receiving low grades for their representation of the middle class: Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and the Republican Party generally.
Pelosi, whom Democrats chose on Wednesday to be their top leader when they move into the minority in the House next Congress, continues to be viewed negatively by a plurality — 48 percent. Just 24 percent say they see her positively.
Rep. John Boehner, the Ohio Republican who will be the next speaker of the House, continues to be largely unknown, with 44 percent of respondents saying they didn't know the name or were unsure of their opinion on Boehner.
But that’s still an improvement from the last poll, when a majority (52 percent) didn’t know or weren’t sure. His rating now is a net-positive (19 percent approve and 17 percent disapprove) a reversal from a month ago.