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Polls: public confidence in government down

Martin Desmarais

According to several recent polls, Americans’ trust in the government and belief that it can solve pressing problems — the economy, health care and the budget — is at an all-time low. But pundits suggest this is no surprise on the back of the government shutdown and caution that widespread dislike of political leaders does not equate the inability of the government to function.

A poll conducted just last month by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that half of those surveyed said America’s system of government needs a lot of changes or even a complete overhaul. A stunning 70 percent lacked any confidence in the government to make progress on the important problems facing the United States in 2014.

When asked the main problems faced by the country and which the government needs to work on, respondents put health care at the top of the list, followed by jobs and the economy and then the U.S. debt and deficit spending.

The Pew Research Center has been polling public trust in the government since the late 1950s and Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the organization, says that since dipping to its current range in the 1970s, trust in the government has had some peaks and valleys but actually hasn’t changed all that much.

According to Doherty, since Watergate and the Vietnam War, Americans have had distrust of the government but the levels of trust seen prior to that period have never been matched again.

“The lack of trust really isn’t new. The relatively low trust has been around since the seventies,” Doherty said. “It has been low for a while and since the seventies there have been very few periods where trust has moved in a positive direction.”

However, he said the current all-time low in government trust can likely be attributed to the declining view of Congress and, in particular, the battles over the Affordable Care Act.

“The contentiousness and disagreement over that is a factor,” he said. “Maybe not the law itself, but certainly the debate and the fact that the government shut down over this law is a factor.”

He also said that the long recession and the fact that the economy still hasn’t recovered are factors in the low trust in government.

Doherty points out that, since the 1970s, trust in the government has not swung that much from president to president either. The numbers during the Carter administration are similar to the current ones during the Obama administration, despite the current all-time bottom.

Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said that it is important that people distinguish between the actions of certain elected officials and the government in general and he worries that the numbers that show low trust in the government are impacted by those not making this distinction.

“I think when you think about government it is important to keep in mind that government is not just those politicians in Washington, it is how we work together to do important things,” Berger said.

According to Berger, U.S. citizens must be engaged in the government to help fix the current issues that are facing this country.

“At some level trust in government is ultimately trust in ourselves,” Berger said. “Lack of confidence in government is a major problem and it is important for all of us to answer the question of why we have government.

“Ultimately government is the tool we have to get important things done,” he added. “It is important to make sure we keep confidence in our government to do those things.”

The AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that in the categories listed as top priorities for the government, those polled had little confidence the government could improve them.

For those who listed health care reform as a top priority 49 percent said they are “not at all confident” the government will make any progress on the issue, and 20 percent said they are only “slightly confident” of progress.

For those who listed the budget and the national debt as a priority, 65 percent said they are “not at all confident” that the government can fix the problems and 20 percent said they were only “slightly confident” that anything will be fixed.

A poll conducted by Pew Research during the government shutdown in October reflects equally dispirited responses.

According to the Pew Research poll, just 19 percent say that they trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time. The share of the public saying they are angry at the federal government, which equaled an all-time high in late September (26 percent), has ticked up to 30 percent. Another 55 percent say they are frustrated with the government. Just 12 percent say they are basically content with the federal government.

However, according to the poll, despite highly negative views of the federal government overall, the public has favorable views of many of its agencies and departments which were closed by the shutdown. Majorities have favorable opinions of 12 of 13 agencies tested — with the IRS the lone exception (44 percent favorable).

Federal workers, hundreds of thousands of whom were furloughed during the shutdown, also were viewed positively by 62 percent of those who responded. Only 20 percent had an unfavorable opinion of federal government workers

Of all parts of government, Congress took the brunt of the ire. The poll found that just 23 percent have a favorable opinion of Congress, while 73 percent have an unfavorable view.

According to Pew Research, in general, the public continues to blame lawmakers themselves — rather than the political system more generally — for the problems in Congress. Nearly six-in-10 (58 percent) said “the political system can work fine; it’s the members of Congress that are the problem.” Just 32 percent said “most members of Congress have good intentions; it’s the political system that is broken.”

Since 2010, more have consistently placed more blame on members of Congress than the political system. Notably, majorities of Democrats (64 percent), Republicans (57 percent) and independents (55 percent) say it is members of Congress, rather than the political system, who are more to blame.