A Primer of Public Opinion Regarding the Role of Government

Three scandals are currently plaguing the Obama Administration, The IRS targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups during the 2012 election, the misrepresentation of facts and editing of talking points regarding a 9/11/2012 terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans, and the Department of Justice’s subpoena of AP phone records in attempt to uncover a leak in the Obama administration.

Each of these scandals has the potential to severely diminish the public’s trust in the federal government to lead, protect, and follow the law and each scandal’s narrative will influence Americans’ opinion on what the role of government should be.

This post aims to provide a number of general benchmarks for where public opinion stands as the country approaches a new battle about the role and efficacy of today’s growing federal government.

  1. Trust in Government is at an All-time Low: According to Pew Research, trust in government has already reached all-time lows in the first term of the Obama presidency. In January 2013, just 26{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans said they “always” or “mostly” trust the government in Washington to do what is right.
    chart 1
    After 9/11, public confidence in nearly all institutions increased sharply and notably Republicans’ trust in the federal government reached levels not seen since the 1960s. However Republicans are the least trusting group over the past four years and as recently as January, Pew found just one out of five Independents and two out of five Democrats said they trusted government.
    chart 2
  2. A majority of Americans view the federal government at a threat: As President Obama prepared his second inaugural address; Pew found a majority (53{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of Americans viewed the Federal government as a threat to their personal rights and freedoms. Just a decade earlier in 2003, 54{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans held the opposite view, saying that the federal government was not a threat to their personal rights and freedoms.
    chart 3
  3. In the last 30 years it has been Democrats, not Republicans, who have most dramatically shifted their views on government’s reach. Pew Research data stretching back almost thirty years shows that the widening partisan gap in opinion about government’s reach has been driven primarily by Democrats, and especially liberal Democrats, who’s views have moved steadily toward a larger role for government. Meanwhile, Republicans and Independent views have been relatively consistent.
    chart 4
  4. Today, there are dramatic differences when it comes to views about the role of government. Data from a Reason-Rupe survey conducted May 9-13 (as the IRS scandal was coming to light), shows a divided public, 48{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans agree with the statement “The less government the better” while 47{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} say “There are more things government should be doing.” Beyond party, there are dramatic gulfs in by gender, age, and geography.
chart 6

Bottom line
Public opinion on government’s role is divided. We will likely see an extensive public debate surrounding each of the scandals currently facing the Obama Administration which have the potential to shift public opinion on this central political issue.

Public Opinion Strategies