What Have You Done For Me Lately?

In case you haven't seen it, there's a new poll out from the National Journal which finds that only 20 percent of Americans -- and only 33 percent of Democrats, for gosh sakes -- think that this Congress has accomplished more than previous Congresses. Steve Benen gives the appropriate response:

I don't expect the public to have an extensive knowledge of federal policymaking history, but I at least hoped Americans would realize the scope of recent accomplishments. We are, after all, talking about a two-year span in which Congress passed and the president signed the Affordable Care Act, the Recovery Act, Wall Street reform, student loan reform, Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, expanded stem-cell research, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, etc. ... This Congress has been about as many accomplishments as recent Congresses? Seriously?

There are a few possible explanations one can offer for this result. Maybe people are just clueless, or perhaps, as Ezra Klein says, "What most engaged Democrats know about health-care reform is it doesn't have a public option. Stimulus? Too small. Financial regulation? Something something Elizabeth Warren something?" In other words, Democrats see all these not as accomplishments but as compromises and partial defeats.

I'd add two things to this menu. First, there may well be what pollsters call a "question order effect" going on here. Respondents' answers to one question can be influenced by what they were primed to think about by the previous question. For instance, if I ask you a question about American Nobel Prize winners and then I ask you what you think of our education system, I may get a different answer on the latter than if it were preceded by a question about dropouts. While the pollster can try to minimize question order effects (sometimes randomly rotating the order of questions), everything has to come before or after something; you can't do a brain sweep of your respondent after each question. With regard to this poll, one of the questions was, "This year, have Republicans and Democrats in Washington been working together more to solve problems, or have they been bickering and opposing one another more than usual?" Not surprisingly, 77 percent chose bickering -- because it's true! And what accomplishments there were didn't come from Republicans and Democrats "working together to solve problems," they came from Democrats overcoming Republican opposition. According to the questionnaire over at Pew's site (they conducted the poll for NJ), the bickering question did indeed come first. So once you've reminded people of all the bickering -- and posed "bickering" as the opposite of "solving problems" (when in fact there was both a lot of bickering and a lot of problem-solving) -- it may not be surprising that they don't say this Congress accomplished all that much.

The second explanation is that most of the things they did don't provide visible effects for most of us, at least not yet. People are going to judge Congress (and the president) by the results they can see -- whether or not Congress actually had much to do with it. Most of the ACA doesn't take effect until 2014, financial reform doesn't seem to touch your life, and so on. And if Congress had done all it had, and the economy was in great shape, they'd probably get a lot more credit.

-- Paul Waldman

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