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2014 Midterms: Voters Head to the Polls Frustrated and Angry at Congress, President

Editor’s Note: As part of the 2014 Midterm Elections Series, experts across Brookings will weigh in on issues that are central to this year’s campaigns, how the candidates are engaging those topics, and what will shape policy for the next two years. In this post, William Galston looks at the public’s lack of trust in governing institutions and how anti-incumbent sentiments will play out on Election Day. 

With only a week to go until the 2014 midterms, the public’s mood can be summed up in three words—frustration, anger, and anxiety. More than five years after the official end of the Great Recession, most people are frustrated by the stagnation of wages and household incomes. They are angry at a political system that seems incapable of acting on the most important challenges facing the country. And they are anxious about a world in which new threats to America’s security and wellbeing seem to be proliferating.

Nothing I’ve just said is particularly surprising to anyone who has been paying attention. Nevertheless, much of the recent survey evidence is startling for its breadth and intensity. Here are some examples.

According to the most recent ABC/Washington Post survey, only 22% of Americans say that their own finances have improved since Barack Obama became president. 57% believe that the U.S. standard of living is declining. Fully 77% are worried about the direction of the economy. Not surprisingly, only 40% approve of President Obama’s handling of the economy, while 59% disapprove. (48% strongly disapprove.)

Pessimism about the future of the economy is widespread. According to the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, only 28% of Americans believe that the economy will improve during the next twelve months. The most recent survey from the Pew Research Center found a statistically identical 27% anticipating such improvement, with 77% rating the condition of the economy as only fair or poor.

When Americans look beyond our borders, their judgment is even harsher. Amid rising worries about the campaign against ISIS, only 36% approve of the president’s handling of international affairs.

Although most people are frustrated with the president, they are downright angry with Congress. According to NCB/WSJ, only 12% approve of the job Congress is doing; 83% disapprove. Only 30% think their representative deserves to be reelected, even lower than in the wave elections of 2010 (37%), 2006 (39%), and 1994 (39%). Paradoxically, the overwhelming majority of current representatives are likely to be reelected, an outcome that is unlikely to damp down public ire.

Pew finds anti-incumbent sentiment at record levels, and disapproval of the parties at or near record lows. Although Democrats remain somewhat less unpopular than Republicans, the gap has narrowed in recent months.

Beneath these aggregate judgments lurk some intriguing complexities. Republicans have moved into a strong lead as the party best able to handle top issues such as the economy, terrorism, and immigration. At the same time, by a margin of 50 to 28, Democrats are rated as being more willing to work with the other party, more concerned about people like me (54 to 33), and governing in a more honest and ethical way (41-33). Republicans have not been able to shed their image, which crystallized during last year’s government shutdown, for being uncompromising to the point of intransigent.

Public perceptions are unlikely to prevent the Republicans from making significant gains next week. But when the new Congress is seated, these perceptions will challenge the GOP to change its strategy and demeanor. NBC/WSJ finds that “breaking the partisan gridlock in Washington to get things done” has surged into a tie with job creation and economic growth as the public’s top concern. 50% now favor candidates who will make compromises to achieve consensus over those who stick to their positions, come what may. This represents a dramatic reversal from four years, when only 34% wanted candidates who would compromise, versus 57% for those who would stand fast. The people got what they voted for in 2010, and it turns out that they don’t like it.

Hovering over these specific complaints is a general withdrawal of public trust and confidence in our governing institutions. The most recent Politico survey found only 36% of Americans expressing confidence that the U.S. is well positioned to meet its economic and natural security challenges. 64% report feeling that right now, things are out of control.

Government provides security, not only by protecting against physical danger, but also by providing reassurance that it is competent and confident about our collective ability to master the challenges we confront. By that standard, today’s elected officials have failed miserably.

The forthcoming elections offer both Congress and the White House an opportunity to make a new start. The people will be watching closely to see whether their officials can seize it.

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