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Early-Spring Polls Find Americans in Sour Mood

Recent polls show President Bush’s approval rating dropping, and Democrats aren’t faring any better. Although several recent polls show them with a small lead on the Congressional ballot question, Democrats trail or match the GOP on thermometer and favorability measures. And Congress as a whole isn’t doing well either. [IMGCAP(1)]

Only 13 percent told CBS News on March 21 and 22 that Congress and the president should become involved in the Terri Schiavo case. And more people trusted Major League Baseball (50 percent) than Congress (38 percent) to deal with steroids.

Discontent is widespread. The military, still the most popular institution in the country, has seen its ratings drop 15 points in a year, according to Harris’ polling. “Wrong track” numbers look dismal, and people don’t feel very optimistic about the economy.

The reason for such a sour mood remains unclear, as polls don’t point to a single cause. Is political polarization in Washington leaving a bad taste in people’s mouths? Iraq fatigue? Although the polls are slightly more positive than they were in the fall, deep divisions about the war remain, and people are resigned to the worrying situation of having American troops in harm’s way for the foreseeable future.

Economic unease? It’s nowhere near the levels of the late 1970s and early 1980s or the early 1990s, though rising gas prices may be beginning to bite. Scandals affecting Members of Congress? No new poll data here.

Yet another possible cause was identified by my American Enterprise Institute colleague Charles Murray in a 1996 article. Looking at the long-term decline in confidence in government, he speculated that Washington’s taking sides on moral disputes that divide Americans was fraying the unique bond Americans have with their government.

The only conclusion right now is that it’s too early to say whether we are seeing the first shoots of broader anti-incumbent feeling or whether this is just a spring slump of the kind that Bush suffered last year.

“Silent Spring.” Rachel Carson’s 1962 book helped give birth to the environmental movement. Last fall, strategist Michael Shellenberger and pollster Ted Nordhaus pronounced the movement dead, arguing in a much-discussed manifesto that it has become “just another special interest.”

Others have also been critical, including most recently New York Times columnist and self-described “environmental groupie” Nicholas Kristof, who lambasted the movement for alarmism. What do the polls tell us?

When Americans agree on what ends policy should serve, they disengage from discussion about means. Having a clean environment became one of those ends in the early 1970s. Once people felt their leaders got the message, they moved on to other things. Today, most Americans are content to let many different actors (environmentalists, business leaders and others) work out environmental policies without their active involvement. The environment is a mature issue now, more potent locally where people haven’t necessarily agreed on the ends policy should serve than they have nationally.

Polls on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge issue illustrate this point. In a review of recent ones, David Moore, senior editor of the Gallup poll, reported on a Luntz poll that showed that 87 percent could not place the location of ANWR in Alaska, and the same percentage could not identify any word in the acronym. Just 8 percent said they knew much about the issue. Moore’s conclusion: “[F]or most people, the issue is so obscure that they have no opinion on it at all.” He showed how questions pulled people toward support or opposition depending on what was emphasized. One showed a 17-point margin for drilling, another a 17-point margin against.

Bush’s marks on handling the issue may also reflect its maturation. While his ratings are nothing to write home about, they aren’t especially negative. In a March 17-18 PSRA/Newsweek poll, 41 percent approved of the way he was handling environmental policy and 45 percent disapproved. That’s not much different from April 2001, when 42 percent approved and 39 percent disapproved. The president’s ratings on other issues are lower.

Baby-boom politicians who grew up with the movement are unlikely to be seen as people who would turn their backs on it. Younger people, once the vanguard of the movement, also reflect the issue’s transformation. In the University of California at Los Angeles’ 1971 survey of college freshmen, 43 percent said being involved in environmental cleanup would be essential or very important to them. In 2004, 18 percent gave that response. Environmental issues rank near the bottom when pollsters ask about priorities for the nation.

Hardly anyone is ill-disposed toward the environment. The movement’s not dead, but the issue that gave birth to it has been transformed.

Karlyn Bowman is a resident fellow specializing in public opinion and polls at the American Enterprise Institute.

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