America's love/hate affair with government

Story highlights

  • New CNN/ORC poll finds trust in government dropped to all-time low
  • Borger: Americans want government programs such as Social Security, Medicare
  • She says Americans don't believe government can solve problems
  • Borger: Obama hasn't demonstrated leadership needed to reverse trend

It's a problem that has been around for awhile, and the longer it stays, the tougher it is to reverse. That's because it's a riddle that's almost impossible to resolve: Americans want the government to fix our problems, but they don't trust the government to do it.

We want health care to be fixed, Medicare and Social Security to stay intact, emergencies to be handled. We also want lower taxes along with a smaller—yet more responsive—government. All in all, we would like to spend less and get more.

Small wonder we don't believe government can do it, because it cannot.

According to the latest CNN/ORC poll, the public's trust in the federal government has dropped to an all-time low: Only 15% of Americans today say they trust the government to do what's right just about always or most of the time—down 10 points from about a year ago. The last time that number was perilously close to rock bottom was in 1994, after Bill Clinton lost health care reform. And it prompted the president to famously declare "the era of big government is over."

Only it isn't. And that's the essential conundrum for Barack Obama. He's been a big-agenda president. He sees himself as transformational, so anything less would not do. But the more he did—economic stimulus, health care reform— the more the public recoiled. They didn't see the results, and hated the partisanship. All of which makes sense.

Even the president himself, back in 2009, admitted he hadn't laid the groundwork for his big agenda. After all, how can you convince the public to expand the government while most people believe it's bloated and out of control? "I understand that people are feeling uncertain about this. They feel anxious, partly because we've just become so cynical about what government can accomplish that people's attitudes are, you know, even though I don't like this devil, at least I know it, and I like that more than the devil I don't know," the president said at a press conference in the middle of the health care debate. "So folks are skeptical. And that is entirely legitimate, because they haven't seen a lot of laws coming out of Washington lately that helped them."

Granderson: Broken gov't? Blame voters
Granderson: Broken gov't? Blame voters


    Granderson: Broken gov't? Blame voters


Granderson: Broken gov't? Blame voters 03:05
How to fix a broken government
How to fix a broken government


    How to fix a broken government


How to fix a broken government 06:21
David Frum: Why is government so broken?
David Frum: Why is government so broken?


    David Frum: Why is government so broken?


David Frum: Why is government so broken? 04:34

All of which is true. But here's where leadership comes in—and has been lacking. The public distrusts government because its leaders haven't been able to work together to produce much of anything. Sure, we want it all—and that's our fault. But if we had some honest politicians out there, on both sides of the aisle, saying we can't have it all, we just might listen to them. Instead, we hear each side yammering about how the other guys solutions will kill the country or jobs or your bank account, so we figure we can't trust any of them.

It's perfectly reasonable to feel that way. In fact, I would make the argument that—after watching the debt ceiling debacle—it would be strange to feel anything other than disrespect for Washington. And the more Congress fools with people's lives—like playing games over emergency funding—the more the public turns off. And it's not going to get any better the closer we get to an election.

It is true that distrust of government is nothing new. It's also not news that we want the government to solve our problems even though we think it's full of scoundrels. "There is nothing new about this ambivalence," scholars, and former Clinton administration officials, Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck point out in an essay called "Change you can believe in requires a government you can trust." They also make this important point: It's up to the president to lead. 'How ... the president deals with it may make the difference between success and failure."

The problem for Obama now is that he has dealt with the problems in all ways: As the partisan and as the conciliator. Yes, the often-recalcitrant freshmen Republicans have backed him into a corner, because they refuse to deal on much of anything. Even so, the president's initial identity—as a change-agent who can fix Washington—is gone.

Ronald Reagan understood the public's skepticism about government. He often joked that the scariest sentence in America is "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." This president's problem is that he wants the government to help—only he hasn't been able to convince the public that government has changed.

That's because it hasn't.

      Why is the U.S. government so broken?

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    • A Gallup poll found a record-high 81% of Americans are dissatisfied with the way the country is being governed, adding to negativity that has been building over the past 10 years.

      More Americans dissatisfied

      A Gallup poll has found a record-high number of Americans are dissatisfied with the way the country is being governed.
    • LZ Granderson

      LZ: Stupid voters to blame

      Whenever I visit Washington, I can't help but think this is the town that elected a crackhead as its mayor.
    • David Frum

      Frum: Congress to blame

      The quality of the people elected to Congress may be better than in previous decades, but the results are worse.