by Randolph T. Holhut
August 13, 2010
AMERICANS SEEK COMPETENCE, ACTION FROM THEIR GOVERNMENT
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Americans have little confidence in the federal government. At the same time, Americans want the federal government to be more effective.
These were the findings of a recent report from The Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank that sought to find out what Americans want from their government.
The report, "Better, Not Smaller: What Americans Want From Their Federal Government," was put together by Guy Molyneux, Ruy Teixeira and John Whaley, with Hart Research Associates as their pollster. It can be found at americanprogress.org.
The CAP team avoided simply asking if people want bigger government or smaller government. Instead, they asked respondents about a variety of issues and what the federal government should be doing.
What they found confirmed what other pollsters have found - confidence in the federal government is at an all-time low. They asked this question: "When the government in Washington decides to solve a problem, how much confidence do you have that the problem actually will be solved?" They found that just 33 percent of adults voice a lot or some confidence, 35 percent have "just a little confidence," and another 31 percent have no confidence at all.
Considering that, in past polling on this question by other organizations, the proportion having no confidence in the government never exceeded 23 percent, it is a definite sign that Americans are getting fed up with the lack of effective action in Washington.
The Republican Party interprets this sentiment as an endorsement for their stance of having as little government as possible. Unfortunately for them, most Americans feel very differently on this issue.
According to the CAP report, Americans were asked what they think should be the higher priority for improving the federal government: reducing the cost and size of federal government, or improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal government? By a margin of 62 percent to 36 percent, people said the priority should be making government more efficient and more effective, not reducing its size.
The response was similar for independents and moderates, as both cited a clear preference for more effective government (62 percent and 69 percent, respectively). Even among the 57 percent of adults they surveyed who said government is doing too many things, there was as much sentiment for improving government's effectiveness (48 percent) as for shrinking government (50 percent).
Despite what the press says, the political argument going into November's election is not that government is too big or doing too much. Aside from the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party, few Americans really believe this. What Americans do want is a government that works for the betterment of all, and does so in an effective, efficient manner.
The result of three decades of the conservative mantra of "government is not the solution, it's the problem" is a federal government that isn't doing things well.
We're coming up on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and New Orleans remains a shadow of the city it once was.
We're entangled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with an overextended and worn-out fighting force that has been asked to do too much, too often with too little.
Oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico for three months, and the effects of that disaster will be long lasting, yet there is little being done to mitigate those effects.
From mine explosions to contaminated food to fraud in the financial markets, government has failed to regulate industries and protect the health, safety and well-being of average Americans.
And, most of all, in the face of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, it has failed at putting people back to work. The number of long-term jobless people, some for longer than two years, is at a post-World War II high.
An interesting statistic from the CAP report is that 27 percent of those surveyed said both that government is doing too many things today and that government should be improved rather than downsized.
These people also want to see an expanded role for government in many areas, even including reducing poverty. In fact, when asked what areas the federal government should become involved in, a majority of Americans they surveyed favor more government involvement in developing new energy sources, improving public schools, making college education affordable, reducing poverty and ensuring access to affordable health care.
While the Obama Administration has taken some action in all five of these areas in which people say they want the government to get more involved, many Americans don't have the confidence that his Administration is getting things right. For example, it will take up to four years before many Americans will see any direct benefit as a result of the health care reform bill. They might get improved access to health insurance, but whether they will also lower insurance rates is still to be determined. Most Americans liked the ideas behind health care reform, but are frustrated with the pace of change.
All the anti-government bluster that Republicans are counting on to give them a political victory in November has little actual truth behind. If the CAP report shows anything, it's that people are more concerned with the competence and results of government than about its size, and that there is plenty of demand for government action across a wide range of economic and social problems.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.
Resources: The full CAP report.