Congress, mired by its partisan bickering, finding few fans

By Peyton M. Craighill and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post / August 12, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Cloning sheep. Cloning humans, even. Caning teen vandals. Believing that aliens have descended from space and abducted humans.

These are all things that, at one time or another, have enjoyed more public backing than Congress is getting right now.

Even President George W. Bush, at his lowest of lows during the 2008 financial crisis, was more popular than the men and women who currently occupy Capitol Hill.

Ragging on Congress, with its sluglike reaction times and inspiring displays of public bickering, has long been a favorite national pastime.

But recent polls indicate Congress’s approval ratings have sunk to record lows. That is pretty bad for an outfit that has been around since 1787.

A recent CNN poll found that just 14 percent of Americans surveyed approved of how Congress has been doing its job.

And a new Washington Post poll found that only 17 percent of Americans surveyed thought their representative should be reelected in 2012.

“These are notably low,’’ said Charles Stewart, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Stewart said Congress might have been even less popular during the days leading up to the Civil War, or during the less-remembered political upheavals of the 1880s and ’90s. But it has never been rated lower since the advent of widespread public polling on Congress, which Stewart dated to the 1970s, than it has been in recent days.

“It’s undoubtedly reflecting a generalized disgust with the institution,’’ he said.

For a little comparison, a 1997 ABC poll found that 39 percent approved of cloning sheep. Pollsters for Johns Hopkins University found in 2002 that 18 percent approved of human cloning.

A survey from Gallup in June showed that Americans have more confidence in banks and even HMOs than in Congress.

Americans, as polled by CNN in 1997, were three times as likely to believe in alien kidnappings than they now are to approve of Congress.

And 37 percent of respondents told the Los Angeles Times in 1994 that they thought it was a good idea to cane teen vandals, after an 18-year-old was famously sentenced to a beating in Singapore.

The causes of the revulsion are obvious and bedeviling: a constitutional system set up to promote divided and gridlocked government. General anxiety about a lagging world economy that makes Congress’s clashes appear even more reckless. A media environment that caters to partisans and spotlights conflict.

And, maybe most important, a political class that reflects deep divisions among the people it represents about the proper size and scope of government.

“If the Constitution was designed to create gridlock, and we’ve discovered the Congress and the president are in gridlock now, who should we really blame here?’’ Stewart asked.

But that doesn’t mean Congress couldn’t give image improvement a try.

Second chances are quintessentially American, and there are many examples of hated companies and personalities who have turned things around that Congress could look to.

Toyota appears to be rebounding from a series of reputation-damaging recalls. Football player Michael Vick is back on top after serving time in prison for his involvement with a dog-fighting ring. Few people even remember that Tylenol’s image took a hit after seven people died in 1983 from ingesting pills that had been poisoned, without the company’s knowledge, with cyanide.

Public relations managers say the keys to a turnaround are easy to explain, though not necessarily easy to replicate: Be humble. Apologize. Most important, examine why your reputation has tanked and make real changes - not traits people readily associate with politicians.

“It can’t be window dressing,’’ said Jesse Derris, a crisis consultant for the public relations firm Sunshine Sachs.

“When you have a truly successful rehabilitation effort, there’s substance behind it.’’

From athletes to movie stars, there’s always one tried-and-true route to image improvement, he said: Do your job well, then keep doing it. “It can’t be a one-off. Whatever happens has to be sustained.’’

Nick Ragone, of the communications firm Ketchum, sometimes advises clients to go hyper-transparent, to overcommunicate about their strategy. But, he said, Congress’s problem is that Americans have been watching lawmakers do their job more closely than usual. And they don’t like what they’ve seen.

Hyper-transparency, it would seem, only hurts Congress.

“It’s a weird paradox,’’ he said. “The counsel we’d give clients is not available here.’’

James Stimson, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina, has found that approval of both the president and Congress has always risen and fallen with the economy.

He said Congress has hurt its cause through months of public gridlock. But he said that when the economy rebounds, public approval probably will, too.

“Congress will never be popular,’’ he said. “But it’ll be less unpopular.’’