Poor salesmen in Congress

Congress is shattering its long-standing reputation for being a gridlocked, lethargic, “do-nothing” institution, instead compiling a record of landmark policy changes in healthcare, financial industry regulation, economic policy and more.

But at the same time, Congress is suffering sky-high levels of public disapproval, signaling a big problem for Democrats as they head into the closing months of the midterm election campaign.

They are doing a lot of big things, but a lot of people don’t like what they’re doing. Others don’t know what they’re doing. And hardly anyone likes the way they’re doing it.

That points up what may be a surprising failing for Democrats. For all President Obama’s skills as a communicator and party leaders’ skills inside the Beltway, they have not done a good job communicating the virtues of their policies, even to potentially receptive voters.

“As legislators, we not only have a responsibility to legislate, we also have a responsibility to educate,” said Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (D-Pa.), who is facing a stiff reelection fight. “We’re not educating. A lot of our people have no idea what we are doing.”


It is hardly surprising that Republican voters are not throwing kudos toward Washington, or that voters of both parties are turned off by the messiness of the legislative process.

“They don’t think Congress is listening to them, or that they just ignore their wishes,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “The real problem is that the American people are concerned about the economy and jobs, and they see Congress spending their money on other things.”

But what is especially damaging for Democrats is that even many Americans who may benefit from their policies are dissatisfied -- about the high level of spending by Congress or about compromises that have been made.

Congressional Democrats have been looking to the White House to help explain their policies and tout their accomplishments -- especially on the economy, where the problems and solutions are so complex.

“He needs to take the country to school on the economy,” said House Appropriations Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.), who said he worried that Obama’s ability to use his bully pulpit to build support for healthcare and other policies had been eclipsed by the oil spill crisis in the gulf.

Critics say Democrats’ policies could have gained more traction if the White House had a stronger commitment to promoting them.

“These guys think that after it passes and is signed into law, it’s sold,” said Neil Newhouse, a GOP pollster who conducts the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. “They have lost ground on issue after issue that they could have sold. They failed to continue to make the sale.”

Citing a mid-May poll, he said fewer people (38%) believed that Obama’s recovery program had helped or will help the economy than the 48% who did nearly a year ago in July.

Democrats are struggling, in part, with legislative overload, as unpredictable world events and an ambitious White House have piled their plate high. The marquee issues of economic recovery, healthcare and Wall Street reform are competing with debates over gays in the military, immigration and oil drilling.

“We’ve taken on too much and diffused understanding by the electorate,” Kanjorski said. “That’s probably the main reason we don’t test out very well” in the polls.

House Transportation Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) can rattle off statistics about the effect of Democrats’ economic stimulus -- such as the number of jobs created in sand and gravel pits, and the number of miles of new highway laid. But he worries that Congress gets little credit from an electorate with a short attention span.

“In this era of instantaneousness, it’s been difficult to dwell on the accomplishments,” Oberstar said.

Rep. Gerry E. Connolly (D-Va.) is frustrated that few people seem aware that a third of the stimulus funds went to tax cuts for middle-income families, contrary to Republicans’ claims about big government spending and tax increases.

“Because we didn’t talk about [the tax cuts], if we campaign on it, people will laugh at it,” Connolly said.

Democratic leaders hope to begin to change that as members of Congress fan out across the country during the Memorial Day recess.

“The measures we have passed are popular,” acknowledged a Democratic leadership aide. “But because they’re a product of Congress, they’re greeted with some skepticism.”