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Surprise! When Congress Does Its Job, Public Approval Rises

March 30, 2021

By Joe Rothstein

In December, Gallup found that only 15% of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing. In mid-March, according to Gallup, that approval rating had jumped to 36%.

What happened during those three months to raise Congress’s approval so dramatically? Most likely it was that the Congress, with Democrats in control of both houses for the first time since 2009, actually seemed serious about doing its job.

It’s no coincidence that the last time Gallup measured 36% approval of Congress also was in 2009, the last time Democrats took control of the White House and both houses of Congress.

During the intervening years, in order to achieve what he hoped would be bi-partisan consensus with Republicans, President Obama agreed to an economic rescue package too small to overcome the damage of the Great Recession. He also engaged in protracted negotiations with Republicans to enact an Affordable Care Act too expensive and too limited to be helpful to many Americans. Since then, with Republicans either in control or playing the role of spoiler, Congress’s most significant action was a tax cut for the rich that was popular only with the rich.

It’s not that there haven’t been important things to do during the years between 36% approval ratings. Tens of millions of Americans were left behind financially. The middle class was shrinking. Health and education costs were too high and going higher. Housing was in short supply. Child care was a chronic problem. So was infrastructure, guns, civil and voting rights and climate change, among others. The undone list remains a long one.

And Congress’s approval rating sank in relation to all the action it failed to take.

This reached its nadir in the Republican party platform of 2020, that read:

WHEREAS, The RNC enthusiastically supports President Trump and continues to reject the policy positions of the Obama-Biden Administration, as well as those espoused by the Democratic National Committee today; therefore, be it RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.

That was it. Unlike all past party platforms, this one promised nothing but allegiance to Donald Trump. In other words, the Republican party was against whatever the Obama administration did and anything Democrats wanted to do but had no positive goals of its own.

That pretty much reflected how Mitch McConnell ran the U.S. Senate with the support of nearly all Republican senators. Once they enacted the tax cut and tried but failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they didn’t really have an agenda.

And that brought Congress down to a 15% approval rating.

Now, the disconnect between what voters want and what their government in Washington is doing is disappearing. Many problems were addressed in the American Recovery Act enacted earlier this month. Others are moving toward resolution in the next big legislative effort. Biden and the Democratic leadership in both houses have unlocked the “old business” file drawer and are acting to deal with the nation’s most urgent problems languishing there.

Congress has been in extreme disfavor with the public so long that it seems forever. But for the first three years of this century, more Americans regularly approved of the work that Congress was doing than disapproved. The Senate Democrats’ leader during those years was Tom Daschle of South Dakota. The Republicans were led by Mississippi’s Trent Lott. A wide gulf separated Daschle and Lott on policy issues, but they formed a strong personal and working relationship that allowed the Senate to function as a legislative body not as an obstacle course.

Congress's public approval numbers remained in the 50 and high 40 percent range during the years Daschle and Lott led their separate caucuses. Gallup’s recent number tells us that such approval ratings would be possible again if Republicans in the Senate were led by a deal-maker like Trent Lott rather than an intransigent hyper-partisan like McConnell.

Until that happens, Democrats must do what’s needed to serve the public interest the way the public clearly wants to be served. And they need to do it quickly. The death or resignation of just one U.S. Democratic senator would return the Republicans to the majority and McConnell would regain the power to close the door on all legislation passed by the House of Representatives. McConnell has proved time and again he doesn’t care what the public thinks or wants. He’s not fazed by the fact that 85% of the American public disapproves of the job he or his fellow Republican senators are doing.

President Biden and the Democratic majorities are thinking big and moving fast. Judging by the rising poll numbers, the public’s response is “what took you so long.”

(Joe Rothstein is a veteran political strategist and author of the award-winning political thrillers “The Latina President and the Conspiracy to Destroy Her,” and “The Salvation Project.” He can be contacted at jrothstein@rothstein.net).



Joe Rothstein is a political strategist and media producer who worked in more than 200 campaigns for political office and political causes. He also has served as editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News and adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA. Mr. Rothstein is the author of award-winning political thrillers, "The Latina President and the Conspiracy to Destroy Her," and "The Salvation Project."