Confidence in the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court all plummets

Gallup finds that Americans' confidence in all three branches of the US government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court and Congress, and a six-year low for the presidency.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama pauses as he speaks about the new health care law during a White House Youth Summit. Gallup finds that confidence in the presidency has dropped to a six-year low.

Politically speaking, and to mangle Shakespeare, now is the summer of our discontent.

At least according to Gallup, which reported recently that Americans' confidence in all three branches of the US government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30 percent) and Congress (7 percent), and a six-year low for the presidency (29 percent). The presidency had the largest drop of the three branches this year, down seven percentage points from its previous rating of 36 percent.

“Since June 2013, confidence has fallen seven points for the presidency, four points for the Supreme Court, and three points for Congress,” Gallup reported, based on a poll taken in early June. “Confidence in each of the three branches of government had already fallen from 2012 to 2013.”

Why this lack of confidence in government?

• Congressional gridlock with no sign of compromise as leaders and would-be leaders talk past one another, seeming to place debating points above legislative accomplishment.

• A Supreme Court that seems perpetually divided along a conservative/liberal axis, as it was this past week on cases related to birth control.

• A presidency – although he’s not named in this institutional poll, everybody knows it’s Barack Obama – inclined to deal in nuance and shades of grey as success comes slowly (if at all) on tough issues like reinvigorating the economy, disengaging from unpopular wars, fixing an immigration system, and countering climate change.

The public preference seems to be along the lines of what actor John Wayne once declared: “If everything isn't black and white, I say, 'Why the hell not?'”

There’s more recent bad news for Obama.

The independent Quinnipiac University poll reported this past week that one-third of American voters think he’s the worst US president since World War II. (Another 28 percent pick George W. Bush.)

What’s more, 45 percent of voters say America would be better off if Republican Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election, according to Quinnipiac. (Thirty-eight percent say the country would be worse off with Romney.)

"Over the span of 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies, President Barack Obama finds himself with President George W. Bush at the bottom of the popularity barrel," said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. "Would Mitt have been a better fit? More voters in hindsight say yes."

Such sourness is across the board.

“How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right; almost all of the time, most of the time, only some of the time, or hardly ever?” Quinnipiac asked.

Just 14 percent picked “most” or “almost all” of the time. Thirty-seven percent said “hardly ever.”

If there’s any consolation for Obama, it’s that his approval rating may – emphasize “may” – improve once he leaves office.

That’s been the case for six of the past nine presidents, according to Gallup (John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton). The two major exceptions are Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam) and Richard Nixon (Watergate).

But the bottom line in Gallup’s “confidence” poll of the three branches of government, which it has been taking since 1991, is this:

“While Americans clearly have the lowest amount of confidence in the legislative branch, ratings for all three are down and are at or near their lowest points to date. At this point, Americans place much greater faith in the military and the police than in any of the three branches of government.

“Members of Congress are likely resigned to the fact that they are the most distrusted institution of government, but there should be concern that now fewer than one in 10 Americans have confidence in their legislative body. And Obama, like the younger Bush before him, is surely aware that the presidency's low confidence rating is not auspicious for his ability to govern and rally the public behind his favored policies.

“While the Supreme Court, with unelected justices serving indefinite terms, is immune to the same public pressures that elected members of Congress and the president must contend with, it is not immune to the drop in confidence in US government institutions that threatens and complicates the US system of government.”

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