Mistrustful of government, but with caveats

MISTRUSTFUL OF GOVERNMENT, BUT WITH CAVEATS…. It seems one of the big political stories of the morning is the results of a new Pew Research Center study, which found a large majority of Americans mistrustful of the federal government. The report noted, “By almost every conceivable measure, Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days.”

For progressives, the results of the study may not be especially surprising, but they’re nevertheless discouraging. One of President Obama’s thematic challenges upon taking office was convincing the electorate that government activism can and should play a role in strengthening the country. That challenge appears even more daunting now, as more of the public opposes the idea of government action reflexively.

Indeed, there’s apparently even a growing paranoia — 30% of the public perceive their government as a “major threat” to their personal freedom, which is nearly double the number from seven years ago.

Opposition to greater government action does not, however, apply to everything.

There’s one big exception, however. A solid majority, 61 percent, do want greater government regulation of the financial industry, something that Obama and the Democratic majorities in Congress are pushing now.

Given the ongoing debate in the Senate, this is at least somewhat heartening. Republicans are no doubt tempted to argue, “Democrats want to sic big government on Wall Street,” but it’s a tough case to make — Americans want big government go after Wall Street.

In the larger sense, I also wonder just how much thought is driving public attitudes on this. Americans are frustrated about a brutal recession, and we’re coming off an era in which Republican corruption, mismanagement, and incompetence made the government look pretty awful in the eyes of the American mainstream.

As the economy improves, thanks to the efforts of a competent and effective government, I wouldn’t be too surprised if this anti-government backlash subsides quite a bit.