WASHINGTON -- Congress may be in the doghouse with the American public, but the broader government -- especially the military -- gets high marks for keeping the nation safe and secure, a new poll suggests.
What's more, nearly seven in 10 Americans are trying to make things better by volunteering, a sign that optimism survives in a nation riled by partisan policy fights and economic uncertainty.
"It's very healthy because it indicates that although we are annoyed, skeptical and have less trust than we'd like in our institutions, we are not hopeless," said David Eisner, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, which partnered on the poll with The Associated Press. "We believe that the bedrock values and principles that we built our society on are right."
The public's contempt for Congress exceeds that of other American institutions, including banks, major corporations and the media. The broader government's performance "making sure that our nation is safe from foreign and domestic threats" received an uptick in confidence from 53 percent a year ago to 72 percent now. And a growing number of people said the government is doing a good job of "making sure all Americans feel safe, secure and free," up from 54 percent in August 2010 to 63 percent now.
The military in particular earns the most respect of the survey, with 54 percent deeply confident in the institution.
But deep contempt for Congress and aspects of President Barack Obama's health care law remain among Americans tired of partisan standoffs over basic pocketbook issues. The Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll of 1,000 adults, conducted Aug. 18-22, found that 57 percent have little or no confidence in Congress, up from 49 percent last year.
So while Boise, Idaho, retiree Dale Shoemaker, 54, feels safer, he doesn't give the nation's political institutions credit.
"I think we're more secure. There are a lot of professional, talented people doing a tremendous job," Shoemaker, who used to consider himself a Republican but now is more of an independent. "But the leadership of the Congress and the Senate are not making decisions about what to do, and they're leaving people hanging."
It's notable news on the brink of an election year for Obama, the health care law's chief author and the one who made the call in May to take out terrorist chief Osama bin Laden. Congress, too, is taking note of its estimation in the eyes of the voting public as both parties gird for battle over control of the House and Senate.
No party profited politically from the standoff over the nation's finances much of the year, especially by the unseemly debt limit dispute that earned the nation a credit rating downgrade and sank approval ratings for all policymakers involved. The bickering continued even as the unemployment rate refused to drop much below 10 percent.
A poll last month found the infighting sank Congress' approval rating to 12 percent.
Congress and the broader government give Americans heartburn, with one central feature of Obama's signature health care overhaul standing out as an example. More than eight in 10 people surveyed -- 82 percent -- say the federal government should not have the power to require Americans to buy health care insurance. Politically important independents were more aligned with Republicans on the mandate question, with 87 percent who don't identify with one of the two major parties saying government should have no right to require insurance; 95 percent of Republicans agreed, according to the poll.
"I just think that people should have the right to buy health insurance, or not," said Daisy Mallory, 78, a retired factory worker from of La Grange, Ill., who says Medicare covers her health care costs. Obama, she said, may have misjudged public's opposition to health care mandates. "I think he understands it better now," she said.
Obama himself acknowledged that his party took a "shellacking" in the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans made the health care law and the Democrats who muscled it through Congress their Issue No. 1 -- and won enough seats to control the House. Obama has said he believes the Supreme Court will uphold the law's constitutionality, but Republicans continue to mention it as a key example of government overreach that they would repeal.
But after nine months in control of the House, Republicans haven't boosted the public's view of Congress.
In the AP-NCC poll, just 8 percent say they are confident in the people running Congress, 10 percent in the federal government. Majorities of Republicans and Democrats lack confidence in congressional leaders, with politically crucial independents showing the sharpest increase in distrust of Congress over the past year. That's up from 49 percent in 2010 to 62 percent now
Even so, most Americans feel safe and more have confidence in the government to keep it that way, the poll shows.
The uptick in approval for the government's handling of national security crosses party lines, but Republicans have shifted sharply. Last year, just 32 percent of Republicans gave the government positive reviews on keeping the nation safe; now, 61 percent of Republicans agree on that. And on making sure Americans feel "safe, secure and free," the same group has jumped from 33 percent who said the government is doing a "good job" to 54 percent now, the poll shows.
The urge to contribute through volunteerism remains strong, according to the poll. Nearly six in 10 Americans say the country needs more sense of community and people helping one another. Most -- 69 percent -- have volunteered in the past year. Eight in 10 said they have made a charitable donation of $25 or more during that time.
The AP-National Constitution Center poll was conducted Aug. 18-22 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellular telephone interviews with 1,000 adults nationwide and has a sampling error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.