Public opinion about government at all-time low

Friday - 4/23/2010, 7:45pm EDT

Carroll Doherty, associate director, Pew Research Center

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By Dorothy Ramienski
Internet Editor
Federal News Radio

Americans have a less positive opinion of government than they were about a decade ago, according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center.

Carroll Doherty is an associate director at the organization, and explained that the same question has been asked the same way since 1958, and the number of people who trust their government all of the time or some of the time is at an historical low.

"There are a lot of factors that go into this. It's not just one thing. There are a lot of elements that go into distrust of government, and all of them seem to be present at the moment. Sour economy -- we've seen low levels of trust in the early 1990s, certainly, when the economy was bad. The economy is very bad today with almost 10 percent unemployment. [There is] a bitter partisan environment in Washington, as we saw over the last year with the health care debate. . . . The favorability of Congress is at 25 percent. It's the lowest we've tracked ever."

The general public doesn't tend to look at branches differently, either. Many lump federal, state and local levels of government together when asked at whom they were upset. A lot of people, however, lashed out specifically at Congress.

"I think they do reserve a special place for Congress, at this point -- there just seems to be such a negative feeling about Congress and the political parties. . . . President Obama's ratings are not terribly positive, but compared to other figures in Washington, he stands fairly tall. [He has] an under 50 percent rating, but that is almost double the favorability rating of Congress."

Many federal agencies saw declining ratings in terms of public opinion.

The Department of Education, FDA and Social Security Administration are just some of the agencies that are viewed less positively now than they were back in 1998.

Interestingly, both the CIA and the IRS saw an increase in their ratings.

"The IRS number has moved around, but we do see that people don't feel terribly burned by federal taxes. They certainly don't like paying them, but the burden is not terribly high in historical terms. I think the agency ratings are following the pattern of overall views of government. Most Americans don't have contact with government agencies frequently, but I think the notable one is Department of Education. I think that may reflect a greater disatisfaction with the quality of public education in this country."

The study also showed that many people now think that the government is inefficient and has the wrong priorities, with the percentage of the latter increasingly sharply since the 1997 survey.

"People have a sour view of national conditions and, again, the economy is a major factor there. They see the government as not having a positive impact. It's a little bit of 'blame the government' {which is} kind of an American tradition, to a certain extent."

Doherty said, in addition, the mistrust of government didn't simply start with the most recent health care reform debate. He said much of the discontent began during the Bush administration during the last decade.

"The composition of those opinions has changed. Republicans have become far less trusting under President Obama. Democrats have become more so, but not a great deal -- right now, 33 percent say they trust the government. That's lower than the percentage of Republicans who trusted the government during the Bush administration. So, Democrats are a bit more skeptical even though they're in power."

Doherty added that this mistrust could have dramatic affects on either party during the mid-term elections later this year.v