Note to President: We do have some problems here. Four trends in public opinion regarding the federal government from polling conducted in June 2013.

Amid a slew of controversies, scandals, and leaks suggesting everything from severe ineptitude to Orwellian over-reaching by the government, earlier this month in San Jose, CA President Obama had this to say:

“If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress, and don’t trust federal judges…then we’re going to have some problems here.”

This post highlights four major trends in public opinion regarding the role of, concern about, and confidence in the federal government the president may find enlightening.

1)    Overall, the country remains evenly divided regarding the role of government.

The NBC-WSJ poll conducted in early June, found the country evenly divided on the role of the federal government, with 48{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} saying the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals and 48{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} saying the government should do more to help meet the needs of people.

  • There has been little movement among partisans and self-described Independents since June 2012 when overall 47{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} said the government was doing too much and 49{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} said it should do more. The little movement that has occurred over that timeframe has been among Republicans who have shifted a few points further toward the sentiment that government is doing too many things.
  • Republicans are about five times more likely to say the government is doing too many things (83{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) than they are to say government should do more (17{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}).  While more evenly divided, a majority of Independents feel the same with 53{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} saying government is doing too many things and 41{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} saying it should do more. Democrat, on the other hand, say government should do more by a 56 point margin (21{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} too many things – 77{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} Should do more).

2)    Even as the debate about the role of government remains gridlocked a large majority of Americans today see the government as a threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.

A June CNN survey found that more than six in ten (62{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) Americans agreed that “the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens” while 37{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} say it has not.

  • In February 2010, when CNN last asked this question, 56{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of respondents agreed that government was a threat to citizens’ rights and freedoms.
  • As I noted in my post last month, a similar question asked by PEW Research Center in January found for the first time a majority (53{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of Americans agreed that the government poses a threat to their own personal rights and freedoms.

chart 1

  • This sentiment is growing and pervasive. Looking at the available crosstabs from the CNN poll, clear majorities across gender, age, race, region, education, and income agreed with the statement.
  • The only groups in which a majority disagrees with the statement were Democrats (37{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} agree – 62{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disagree) and Liberals (42{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} agree – 57{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disagree).  However, that roughly four-in- ten of those groups agreed is a significant finding.
  • Other political sub-groups were solidly in agreement including 82{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of conservatives, 79{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Republicans, 71{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Independents, and 53{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of moderates.

3)    A plurality (42{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of Americans express “very little” or “no” confidence in the federal government, matching previous highs across more than two decades of polling data.

The June NBC-WSJ survey tested the public’s confidence in ten institutions.

chart 2

  • Only two institutions, the military and the automobile industry, garnered the confidence of more than a quarter of American adults.
  • “The federal government” ranked fourth behind the military, the automobile industry, and religious leaders and organizations.
  • Seventeen percent (17{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of respondents expressed a great deal or quite a bit of confidence in the federal government and a plurality, 42{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}, expressed “very little” or “no” confidence. Thirty-nine percent (39{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of respondents said they had “some” confidence in the federal government.
  • The 25 point gap between total confident (a great deal/quite a bit) and total not confident (very little/none at all) is the second largest recorded by the poll. The largest was a 26 point difference recorded in July 2007.
  • Further, since 1990 a plurality of respondents have expressed “very little” or “no” confidence in the federal government only two other times, in July 2007 and August 2010.
  • In all three instances, July 2007, August 2010, and today, 42{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of respondents overall said they had little or no confidence including majorities of Independents.
  • Confidence varies when specific departments and branches of the federal government are tested on a confidence scale. Showing NBC-WSJ and Gallup ratings together (all collected in June 2013) provides some dimension to public confidence in government based institutions.

chart 3

  • It is clear how high Americans’ confidence is in the US military when compared to the lackluster ratings for the presidency and the Supreme Court. The very low levels of confidence in the federal government tracks closer to confidence ratings for the IRS and Congress.
  • During the Obama presidency, confidence was highest in June 2009 when 51{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans expressed a great deal or quite a lot of confidence, but that number has been in the mid-30s in Gallup tracking since July 2010.
  • Gallup makes two important notes about the rating for Congress.
    • Democrats, Independents, and Republicans are about equally likely to express low confidence in Congress.
    • Americans’ confidence in Congress is not only at its lowest point on record, but also is the worst Gallup has ever found for any institution it has measured since 1973.

4)    Optimism about the future of government remains historically low while pessimism is on the rise.

The June NBC-WSJ poll found optimism about the future of our system of government and how well it works remains historically low, a consistent trend since 2008.

  • The question posed was originally asked by the Roper Organization in 1974 following the impeachment of President Nixon and has been tracked by different polling outfits several times since. The chart below provides the trend.

 chart 4

  • In 1974, 55{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans were optimistic and on average between 1975 and 1983 roughly 48{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans were optimistic and 49{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} were pessimistic or uncertain.
  • In January 2008, Gallup found attitudes were slightly less optimistic with 44{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans saying they were optimistic, 23{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} pessimistic, and 33{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} uncertain about the future of our system of government and how well it works.
  • In polling conducted from October 2010 through June 2013, there was a significant shift. Uncertainty eclipsed optimism and across the three data points an average just 30{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans expressed optimism while an average of 69{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} expressed either pessimism or uncertainty.
  • The share of pessimistic Americans has increased 45{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} since 2010 accounting for half of the increase in Americans sharing that sentiment since 1974.
  • As seen in the chart below, in the June 2013 track, more than three out of four Independents (76{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) and Republicans (79{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) view the future of our system of government and how well it works with pessimism or uncertainty. And 55{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Democrats share the same view while just 44{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} express optimism.

chart 5 

Bottom line

While Americans remain evenly divided about the role of government in general, they are increasingly worried the government has become so large and powerful it threatens our rights.  At the same time, confidence in the federal government is at all-time low levels, and optimism about our system of government continues to fall.  While this lack of faith in government is not a new phenomenon, the levels to which these measures have sunk in recent years are notable.

Public Opinion Strategies