As Democrats look forward to a president from their party and expanded majorities in Congress, they are optimistic about the coming years. Most foresee a decrease in partisanship in Washington and say that their party’s leaders should try to work with Republican leaders to get things done, even if it means disappointing some groups of Democratic supporters. About half say Obama should appoint Republicans to serve in important administration positions, and most say the party should move in a more moderate, rather than a more liberal, direction.

By contrast, most Republicans want their leaders to move in a more conservative – rather than a more moderate – direction in the coming years, and a significant minority say congressional leaders should stand up to Obama on issues that are important to the base, even if it means less gets done in Washington. Not surprisingly, Republicans are far less optimistic than Democrats about the possibility of improved partisan relations. While most Democrats think partisanship will decrease, Republicans tend to see things at best staying the same, if not getting worse.

Most Want Bipartisanship

The public’s desire for bipartisanship – already strong following Democratic gains in the 2006 midterm election – has increased fol
lowing Obama’s victory. Roughly three-quarters (77%) of voters say that Democratic leaders in Washington should try as best as they can to work with GOP leaders to accomplish things, even if it means disappointing some groups of Democratic supporters. About the same number (74%) say Republican leaders should do all they can to work with Obama.

Two years ago, there was less unanimity, particularly when it came to how the Democratic leaders should deal with the Republican president. While 73% of voters wanted Republican leaders, who had just lost their majorities in Congress, to do all they could to work with Democrats, 58% said the new Democratic majority should try as best as it could to work with George W. Bush. Instead, 34% wanted Democrats to stand up to Bush, even if it meant less got done in Washington.

The difference is in the amount of frustration Democrats – and many independents – felt with Bush two years ago. At that time, half of Democratic voters wanted their party’s leaders to stand up to Bush, as did a third of independents. Today, fewer Republicans (39%) want GOP leaders to stand up to Obama and 17% of independents say the same.

In keeping with the theme of bipartisanship, six-in-ten voters say that the president-elect should appoint Republicans to serve in important positions in his administration. This includes 71% of Republicans, 59% of independents, and 51% of Democrats. Within the Democratic base, liberals are slightly more supportive of this idea than are conservatives and moderates (57% vs. 48%).

Republicans Favor More Conservative Course

While most Republican voters want party leaders to work with Obama even if it means disappointing some supporters, a clear majority says their leaders should pursue a more conservative, not a more moderate, agenda.

Fully six-in-ten (60%) Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say GOP leaders should move in a more conservative direction in the coming years, while just 35% advocate a more moderate course. This sentiment crosses gender, age and income lines within the party, and reflects the fundamentally conservative ideological balance within the GOP electorate. Roughly two-thirds (68%) of Republicans and Republican leaners identify themselves as conservative, and three-quarters of these voters (74%) think the party should turn further to the right. While a majority of the moderates and liberals within the party advocate a centrist approach, they make up fewer than a third (31%) of Republican voters overall.

Most Democrats, by contrast, favor their leaders moving in a more moderate, rather than a more liberal, direction in the coming years, and this reflects the more moderate cast of the party’s electoral base. A 57% majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say party leaders should move in a more moderate direction; just 33% say the party should pursue a more liberal course. Not surprisingly, 56% of liberal Democrats want the party to move further to the left, but they make up barely a third of Democratic voters overall. A majority of Democrats and Democratic leaners describe themselves as moderate or conservative ideologically, and 70% of these voters favor the party pursuing a more moderate agenda.

Virtually all elements of the Democratic Party favor moving in a more moderate direction. Majorities of younger and older Democrats, white and black Democrats, and higher and lower education Democrats all favor moderation. There is substantial regional variation, however – with far more support for moving in a more liberal direction among Democrats in the Northeast and West than among Democrats in the South and Midwest.

There is little disagreement among Democrats over who should take the lead in setting the policy agenda. By a margin of 72% to 21%, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say that Obama, not Democratic leaders in Congress, should take the lead in setting the policy agenda in the coming year. Conservatives, moderates and liberals within the party all agree that the incoming president should set the agenda.

Democrats Foresee Better Relations in Washington

Overall, voters are a bit more optimistic about improved partisan relations in Washington this year than they were after the 2006 midterm election. After that election, Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, while Bush entered the final years of his presidency. The shift is mostly due to the broad optimism of Democrats. Republicans have, if anything, become slightly more pessimistic about the chances of partisan comity than they were after the Democrats won majorities two years ago.

Most Democratic voters (57%) say they think relations between the parties in Washington will get better in the coming year. About a third (34%) says things will stay the same and just 6% see partisan divisions getting worse. This represents far more optimism than Democratic voters expressed two years ago, when 36% saw partisan relations getting better with Bush still in the White House.

The Republican outlook is far less positive. Just 17% think partisan relations will improve, while 31% say they will get worse over the coming year; 49% say things will stay about the same. The balance of GOP opinion is slightly more pessimistic than it was two years ago.

Independent attitudes about bipartisanship are more positive than negative by nearly two-to-one (34% say relations will get better; 18% say they will get worse). Still, a 44% plurality of independents foresees no change in the level of partisan conflict. The balance of opinion among independents is improved from how these voters felt following the 2006 midterms. At that time, about as many thought partisanship would get worse (21%) as better (26%).

More voters say they are happy (53%) than unhappy (41%) that the Democratic Party maintained control of Congress. But the balance of opinion is less lopsided than two years ago when the Democrats first regained majorities in both houses. In November 2006, 60% of voters were happy about the Democratic victory, while 27% were unhappy. The shift in opinion is starkest among independents. Two years ago, 62% of independent voters were happy about the Democrats taking the majority and just 16% were unhappy. The balance is still favorable today, but by a much slimmer 50% to 38% margin.