‘Government’ still not popular

‘GOVERNMENT’ STILL NOT POPULAR…. The need for bold, government action probably hasn’t been as strong in decades as it is now. The government needed to intervene to prevent an economic collapse. It needs to intervene to prevent an environmental catastrophe. Government is needed to repair a broken health care system, repair financial regulations, improve access to education, and combat terrorism.


And yet, distrust of government is soaring, at precisely the worst time. After the excruciating failures of the Bush era, it was tempting to think the electorate might finally be prepared for an activist government , addressing crises that conservative policymakers preferred to ignore and neglect. That, alas, is not the case.

A new Gallup poll reports, “Americans are more likely today than in the recent past to believe that government is taking on too much responsibility for solving the nation’s problems and is over-regulating business. New Gallup data show that 57% of Americans say the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to businesses and individuals, and 45% say there is too much government regulation of business. Both reflect the highest such readings in more than a decade.”

The results are more than a little discouraging. In a time of widespread fires, a whole lot of Americans have been convinced not to trust the fire department. After deregulation helped create a global economic collapse, a plurality of Americans think “there is too much regulation of business.” That’s kind of nutty, but it’s also the highest number on this question in a generation. The percentage of Americans who believe “government is trying to do too much” is the highest it’s been since the days of Speaker Gingrich.

Reflecting on the Gallup data, Greg Sargent noted, “[A]ny chance President Obama may have had to permanently shift the paradigm against government-is-bad theology is fast passing him by.”

Perhaps. But I’m not prepared to give up hope on a possible paradigm shift.

First, the poll’s questions were fairly generic, and if you ask Americans about whether the government should be “doing more to solve the nation’s problems,” a generic opposition can kick in.

What matters more, however, are the specifics. Let’s remember, much of the public doesn’t even understand what is and isn’t a government program. It’s been surprisingly common of late to hear people say they hate government but love their Medicare. Americans say they want government to do less, but if pressed on the details, these same Americans look to policymakers to do more — indeed, far more — on everything from health care to education, infrastructure to energy policy.

Note, for example, that despite all of the ferocious attacks against health care reform in recent months, the public option still polls very, very well. People who claim they want government to do less are the same people who like the idea of a government-run plan that competes with private insurers. That’s a fundamentally liberal idea that challenges the government-is-bad paradigm, and conservative criticisms aren’t working.

This is especially true as it relates to the economic crisis. Are American really hoping that the finance and banking sector are regulated even less? Maybe some see a value in that, but they’re hopelessly confused.

Second, the best way to change public perceptions is to prove their fears wrong. The White House and its allies in Congress are using government to intervene in a variety of areas at a time of considerable unrest and near-panic. Resistance to change and bold government action is almost reflexive. Real, meaningful change is hard.

But those numbers can shift back with proof. If policymakers can use government to improve the economy, fix the broken health care system, prevent terrorism, make college more accessible and affordable, restore some common sense oversight on Wall Street, Americans’ attitudes will change.

And third, the president deserves at least some credit for, during his first eight months in office, challenging the prevailing paradigm. Bill Clinton famously said the “era of big government is over,” but Barack Obama has deliberately tried to move the needle in the other direction.

* In January, Obama offered a rather explicit defense of government: “It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy….”

* In February, in his first address to Congress, Obama did the same thing. E. J. Dionne Jr. noted at the time, “President Obama’s message to the nation Tuesday night was plain and unequivocal: The era of bashing government is over…. [Obama] has sought, subtly but unmistakably, to alter the nation’s political assumptions, its attitudes toward collective action and its view of government. Obama’s rhetoric is soothing and his approach is inclusive. But he is proposing nothing less than an ideological transformation.”

* In his joint-session speech on health care, Obama again defended the very idea of government action, standing up for the “belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.” He warned against the “perils” of government doing “too little.”

Changing attitudes about government is even more difficult than changing a dysfunctional health care system. But President Obama is making a deliberate effort, despite the headwinds.