Government Approval at Lowest Point since Watergate
Policy + Politics

Government Approval at Lowest Point since Watergate

Almost three-quarters of Americans — 72 percent — have a negative view of the federal government, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll released Wednesday. It is the highest level of dissatisfaction since the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. At the same time, the poll showed Americans almost evenly divided over what the government should be doing for its citizens.

One-third of those polled by Gallup preferred an activist government — one that takes a leading role in trying to improve the lives of citizens, while another third called for limited government that performs only basic functions. The rest were in what one Gallup official called the “mushy middle,” wanting the government to take action on some things but not others.

“The federal government has an image problem. It’s like
the cable company; they may perform a necessary
function but people are dissatisfied with the service.”

“The federal government has an image problem,” said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup. “It’s like the cable company; they may perform a necessary function but people are dissatisfied with the service.” Newport said when you ask people what they think of the government, “‘Bleah’ comes out of their mouth.”

Congress is so polarized that it is hard-pressed to accomplish even the things that the public says are important. When respondents in the Gallup survey were asked what the government should do, more than a third placed top priority on economic and budgetary concerns: 

  • Fifteen percent said the government should “create jobs.”
  • Six percent said “improve the economy.” 
  • Another 6 percent said “balance the budget.”
  • But 4 percent said the government should “expand health care coverage.”
  • And 4 percent said “cut taxes.”

All told, 35 percent mentioned those specific problems. Yet Congress failed to pass even one of 13 regular appropriations bills before recessing last month for the midterm campaign, while lawmakers have made little progress in addressing the deficit.

The Ambivalent Elderly
The deep ambivalence toward government is even more pronounced among the elderly, according to a separate poll by AARP, the senior citizens’ advocacy group. Seniors — the most reliable voters and a key political bloc — said they were greatly concerned about the massive $1.3 trillion annual budget deficit and fretted that their children would fare worse financially than they have. But elderly voters vigorously opposed any measures to reduce spending for Social Security or Medicare, two of the government’s biggest and fastest growing entitlement programs.

In the AARP survey of likely senior voters, released Wednesday, 91 percent of respondents said they were concerned about the deficit, but almost all AARP members surveyed (95 percent) said it was important that a candidate pledge to protect Social Security as a guaranteed, life-long benefit.  That view was essentially identical among Republicans (94 percent), Democrats (98 percent) and ticket-splitters (95 percent).

Moreover, the overwhelming majority of AARP members receiving Medicare health insurance (81 percent) and those younger members not yet eligible for Medicare (86 percent) are worried that a looming 23 percent cut in reimbursements to physicians will reduce their access to a doctor. That doesn’t bode well for President Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission. The commission’s two co-chairmen have warned that Social Security is on a path to insolvency and signaled that any fix should involve both cuts in future benefits and increases in the payroll tax.

Seniors’ attitudes also are likely to be bad news for Obama and the Democrats. A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that among seniors who say they are very interested in the upcoming election, 51 percent prefer to see Republicans in control of the next Congress, while 40 percent say they want Democrats in charge. 

“There is no doubt that older Americans of all political stripes continue to strongly support Social Security and want to protect it for both themselves and future generations,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s executive vice president. Asked whether she saw any contradiction between seniors’ concern about the deficit and overwhelming opposition to cuts in Social Security or Medicare, LeaMond replied: “This is another huge disconnect between local punditry and what people across the country feel.”

The gap between Republicans and Democrats in Congress also contributes to inaction on what people say they want, according to Gallup panelist Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution. For the first time since political scientists have been looking at Congress, he said, there is “zero ideological overlap” between the Republican and Democratic parties in the Congress. “The most conservative Democrat was a click more liberal than the most liberal Republican,” he said.

With politicians all but calling each other names in increasingly divisive campaign races, the image of Congress continues to take a hit. President Obama helped diminish it further by going after senators and representatives in his State of the Union address in January, according to Lydia Saad, senior editor at Gallup.  After the speech, she said, Gallup’s monthly tracking poll on the approval of Congress, already low, went down even further for Democrats while staying the same for Republicans.

“That set the stage for the enthusiasm gap we see” in the upcoming elections, she said. “In terms of likely voters, Democratic enthusiasm is relatively low. Obama set the tenor that lawmakers were not doing enough.”

The USA Today/Gallup poll was based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 20-21, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.