Sen. Schumer: ‘Sour’ electorate reluctant to give Democrats credit for efforts

“Sour” voters reluctant to award Democrats for their legislative success are one of the reasons the party is trailing in the polls, according to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

But Senate leaders will keep trying to change that with a jobs-based September agenda, the Senate Democratic Conference vice chairman said Thursday.

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Asked why the Democrats are still expected to lose seats in November after passing major bills like healthcare reform, credit card reform, a fair-pay act and Wall Street reform, Schumer said voters are frustrated and don’t feel the effects of the legislation.

“It’s the world we’re in. It’s a much more negative, critical world, and people are sour now,” he said. “The thing they’re most sour about is the future, not the present. In other words, if people were sure that things would be better five years from now, they’d be less sour.

“Given that, I think people are more negative right now across the board — the right wing is more negative, the left wing is more negative, the center is more negative. That’s how it is.”

Jobs and an improving economy are a major campaign issue for the Democrats. The White House has joined in on the effort, emphasizing a “recovery summer” agenda designed to reassure voters about the economy.

That effort may not be paying off, however. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll out Thursday found that 60 percent of those polled believe Congress is either below average or among the worst in history, which is an all-time high. Plus, 64 percent think the economy hasn’t hit rock bottom yet.

Schumer, who was in Washington Thursday to lead a brief, half-hour recess Senate session, said Democratic leaders will focus on jobs-and-economy measures when the chamber returns on Sept. 13. The Senate will be in session for three weeks before adjourning until a lame-duck session, which will happen after the Nov. 2 election.

Schumer’s 2005-2009 tenure as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was credited with a net pickup of 14 seats and majority control of the Senate.

But recent polls reflect the historical trend that the party controlling the White House loses seats in midterm elections. Democrats are expected to lose some of their 59 Senate seats and some House seats — but not likely to lose control of either chamber.

New numbers from a Thursday CNN/Opinions Dynamics poll show an electoral landscape that mirrors that of 1994, when Republicans gained 54 seats in the House and took back control of Congress for the first time in more than 40 years.

The latest numbers give Republicans a three-point edge on the generic ballot question, just about the same advantage the party enjoyed heading into the heart of the '94 campaign season.

Part of the Democrats’ problem, Schumer acknowledged, is that many voters haven’t paid close enough attention to the 111th Congress to be familiar with the beneficial legislation Democrats have pushed through.

Asked if that means the party has done a poor job of messaging, Schumer disagreed.

“People think all of these things are good, but are they making my life better? And the two most major things we’ve done haven’t had much of an effect yet because when you do major, major legislation, it doesn’t take effect the next day,” he said.

“We try to message. But it’s harder to message these days because of the way the world has changed — the media world and the public world, where negativity and instantaneousness seems to have higher ground than it used to. That means when there’s something big, and something good happens, it’s just quick for a few minutes and it doesn’t get the weight it deserves, compared to something trivial and negative and cute.”

Schumer said Democrats will do well if they point out to mainstream voters that government is on their side.

“The Republicans have seemed to buy into the theory of ‘Get rid of government.’ The average person doesn’t believe that,” Schumer said. “The average person feels they need help in the difficulties they are in. … Their goal is to have a government that is helping them. They will choose that over no government. Our task is to get them to understand we’re focused on them.”

To do that, Schumer said the Senate in September will focus on a bill to promote small businesses, a child nutrition bill, a tax-credit bill for companies and possibly a vote on the Bush-era tax cuts or the START arms treaty between the United States and Russia.

“To my way of thinking, it’s jobs, the economy and helping the middle class stretch their paycheck. We have to fill in the details, but that ought to be our main focus,” he said.

The Democrats’ doldrums have sparked a variety of debate.

This week, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs opened an interparty rift with “the professional left,” arguing that liberal groups weren’t giving enough credit to Obama and congressional Democrats. Liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has defended those groups, saying they are simply frustrated, but Gibbs has stood by his remarks.

Schumer, one of the more liberal Democratic senators, said he thinks the party’s liberal base feels compelled to maintain pressure.

“A lot of the advocates on the left feel inside like we’ve done a pretty good job, but their public role is to importune us further,” he said. “And that’s their job, and I appreciate that, but there’s lots of things to weigh in balance.”

—Shane D’Aprile contributed to this article.