Do Americans Want Obama or Congress in Charge in 2015?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A January 5 through January 8 poll from Gallup showed just how split America is on political parties at the moment. The poll shows that 40% of respondents consider President Barack Obama a better choice for who should have the most influence on our nation’s future. It showed a slight lead of 43% believing Republicans in Congress should be behind the wheel. Now, as polls go, it’s a pretty weak lead, and a fairly even split, especially compared to past years. As shown in the table below, there was a 31% lead for Democrats in Congress during George W. Bush’s presidency, when asked the same question. There was an 18% lead for Bill Clinton to take lead over Republicans in Congress back in 1999. And that split says a lot about where the country was, how the parties functioned, how Congress functioned, and how Americans felt about their president.


What does this latest poll say about Obama’s approval in comparison to Congress?

The president’s approval rating is currently at 46%, and in the past the approval rating does seem to have hinted at whether Congress or presidential leadership were preferred. George Bush was nudged aside for Democrats in Congress, and he was at a 37% approval rating, while preference for Bill Clinton’s lines up with a 67% approval rating in January 1999.

So does this mean the nation is equally satisfied — or equally dissatisfied, perhaps — with both Republicans in Congress and Obama? Currently it’s hard to answer that. Most of the polls out for Congressional approval are outdated, published before elections, not after the new majority had time to settle in. Gallup has a poll from October 2014 that found an average approval rating of 14%. Pew Research has one from July with 28% favorability rating.

RealClearPolitics — which averaged seven different polls to find its score — put Obama at 44.4% approval, 50.3 % disapproval. It averaged six different polls — some of them post-midterm election — for an average approval rating of 14.3% and disapproval of 76.0% for Congress. There’s a pretty clear gap there between the presidency and Congress. But just because approval isn’t high, doesn’t mean that citizens trust Obama. And approval of Republicans in Congress versus Congress as a whole are two different matters.

What might this mean for 2016?

The reason this poll is in part so interesting is that it gives us some hint as to how a Republican Congress in combination with a Republican president might be received. There is a slight preference for Republicans taking charge in Gallup’s poll.

However, there is also support for the Democratic president, and because it’s such a close split, it seems possible that it could be a tight election in 2016. In part it will depend on how well each representative of the left and right leads — i.e. this may show that it’s anyone’s game. “We have to show that we can be a productive party, and that, I think, will have a direct effect on whether we’re able to elect a Republican as president in 2016,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), according to the Washington Post.

Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had similar sentiment to add, according to Slate, saying, “I don’t want the American people to think that, if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that’s going to be a scary outcome.” For Democrats, it will also depend on how destructive executive actions end up being for their party. Some argue that Obama’s reputation was problematic during the midterm election. Realistically, midterms are always tricky for Democrats, and there were many factors that went into the Democrat’s loss. But it’s arguable that candidates who have not put sufficient distance between themselves and our current president may fave a more difficult run in 2016 as a result. 

So which of the two is more likely to take charge going forward in 2015?

That will really depend on how capable Congress is of passing either small but important steps toward reform, or if they can create legislation with the right bipartisan balance to make it through Congress and get past Obama’s desk.

Obama has the advantage of executive action. It is a less far-reaching course of action of course, but even so, it does not require the degree of cooperation and agreement as Congressional action demands. But it also lacks the permanence and direction a well motivated and effective legislature can accomplish, and even Obama recognizes the limitations he faces with this as the lone battle plan for the coming year.

Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

More from Politics Cheat Sheet:

Check out Politics Cheat Sheet on Facebook