Perception vs. Reality

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It is interesting the way certain perceptions are difficult to change, even if the perceptions are different than reality. A case in point is the national perception of Congress. Let me explain.

While Washington continues to be a place where decisions come slowly and compromise is rare, there have been some signs of progress in recent weeks. For example, we have witnessed bipartisan cooperation on the issues of immigration and student financial aid. Regardless of your position on the recent revelations of the government’s collection of phone data, I was encouraged to see that the differences of opinion were bipartisan as well.

But a recent Gallup poll would suggest that if what I say is accurate (i.e., reality), it is not reflected in public opinion (i.e., perception). For the 45th consecutive month, the approval rating of Congress is less than 20%.

These results are based on telephone interviews conducted during the first week of June. The study reflects a random sample of 1,529 adults (18 years and older) living in every state and the District of Columbia.

When you read the study carefully, the specific results provide a more complex picture. For example, for those who disapprove of Congress, the majority (59%) do so because of their perceptions of partisan gridlock or ineffectiveness. These levels of disapproval are primarily related to the assessment of “party gridlock/bickering/not compromising” and “not getting anything done/not making decisions.”  When asked to assess Congress’s actions on specific issues, the disapproval numbers are quite low (budget deficit/spending – 6%; healthcare reform – 2%; immigration reform – 2%).

The point is that negative perceptions may relate more to “gridlock fatigue” than to concern about any specific policy issue. This is more true of respondents who self-identified as Democrats than those who self-identify as Republicans. More Republicans cite concerns about the budget and healthcare, but a majority of both groups express overall disapproval.

Another fascinating aspect of this study is that a majority of respondents approve of the performance of their own Congressional representatives.  As Gallup has revealed in prior studies, this correlates to the extremely high percentage of House and Senate members who get re-elected … over and over again.

But one has to wonder why the sum of the parts does not equal the whole? It would seem that this relates to the divided leadership (Democratic Senate and Republican House) where individual members are held less responsible than the entire institution.

I believe that there is some progress being made in bipartisan leadership. I wonder what it will take to convince others. Or maybe … this is not reality … but just my perception!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Wednesday, 23 July 2014