By almost every
conceivable measure Americans are less positive and more critical
of government these days. A new Pew Research Center survey finds
a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government
– a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash,
and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials.
an activist government to deal with the nation’s top problems, the
public now wants government reformed and growing numbers want its
power curtailed. With the exception of greater regulation of major
financial institutions, there is less of an appetite for government
solutions to the nation’s problems – including more government
control over the economy – than there was when Barack Obama first
hostility toward government seems likely to be an important election
issue favoring the Republicans this fall. However, the Democrats
can take some solace in the fact that neither party can be confident
that they have the advantage among such a disillusioned electorate.
Favorable ratings for both major parties, as well as for Congress,
have reached record lows while opposition to congressional incumbents,
already approaching an all-time high, continues to climb.
The Tea Party
movement, which has a small but fervent anti-government constituency,
could be a wild card in this election. On one hand, its sympathizers
are highly energized and inclined to vote Republican this fall.
On the other, many Republicans and Republican-leaning independents
say the Tea Party represents their point of view better than does
These are the
principal findings from a series of surveys that provide a detailed
picture of the public’s opinions about government. The main survey,
conducted March 11–21 among 2,505 adults, was informed by surveys
in 1997 and 1998 that explored many of the same questions and issues.
While a majority also distrusted the federal government in those
surveys, criticism of government had declined from earlier in the
decade. And the public’s desire for government services and activism
was holding steady.
This is not
the case today. Just 22% say they can trust the government in Washington
almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in
half a century. About the same percentage (19%) says they are "basically
content" with the federal government, which is largely unchanged
from 2006 and 2007, but lower than a decade ago.
elected officials are particularly poor. In a follow-up survey in
early April, just 25% expressed a favorable opinion of Congress,
which was virtually unchanged from March (26%), prior to passage
of the health care reform bill. This is the lowest favorable rating
for Congress in a quarter century of Pew Research Center surveys.
Over the last year, favorable opinions of Congress have declined
by half – from 50% to 25%.
While job ratings
for the Obama administration are mostly negative, they are much
more positive than the ratings for Congress; 40% say the administration
does an excellent or good job while just 17% say the same about
and institutions also are viewed much more positively than is Congress.
Nonetheless, favorable ratings have fallen significantly since 1997–1998
for seven of 13 federal agencies included in the survey. The declines
have been particularly large for the Department of Education, the
FDA, the Social Security Administration, as well as the EPA, NASA
and the CDC. In terms of job performance, majorities give positive
ratings to just six of 15 agencies or institutions tested, including
the military (80% good/excellent) and the Postal Service (70%).
As was the
case in the 1997 study of attitudes about government, more people
say the bigger problem with government is that it runs its programs
inefficiently (50%) than that it has the wrong priorities (38%).
But the percentage saying government has the wrong priorities has
increased sharply since 1997 – from 29% to 38%.
to this trend, the survey also finds a rise in the percentage saying
the federal government has a negative effect on their day-to-day
lives. In October 1997, 50% said the federal government had a positive
effect on their daily lives, compared with 31% who said its impact
was negative. Currently, 38% see the federal government’s personal
impact as positive while slightly more (43%) see it as negative.
about government’s personal impact is not limited to the federal
government. Just 42% say their state government has a positive effect
on their daily lives, down from 62% in October 1997. There is a
similar pattern in opinions about the impact of local government
– 51% now see the impact of their local government as positive,
down from 64% in 1997.
attention captured by demonstrations and other expressions of anti-government
sentiment, Americans’ feelings about the federal government run
more toward frustration rather than anger. In the current survey,
56% say they are frustrated with the federal government, 21% say
they are angry and 19% say they are basically content. Since October
1997, majorities have expressed frustration with the federal government,
with a single notable exception; in November 2001, two months after
the 9/11 attacks, just 34% said they were frustrated with the federal
the frustration most Americans feel with government, a majority
of the public (56%) says that if they had a child just getting out
of school they would like to see him or her pursue a career in government;
and 70% say the government is a good place to work, unchanged from
with the frustrated majority, which has remained fairly steady over
the years, the survey also identifies a small but growing segment
of the public that holds intense anti-government views. The proportion
saying that they are angry with the federal government has doubled
since 2000 and matches the high reached in October 2006 (20%).