Small Government or Smart Government?

30 Sep, 2015

Government Relations

Small Government or Smart Government?

By Doug Pinkham
Public Affairs Council President
September 30, 2015

Everyone in government has poor grades these days. The president’s approval rating is 46 percent, Congress’ rating is 15 percent and the public’s trust in the federal government to handle domestic problems has fallen to 38 percent — a record low score.

Given these numbers, it’s easy to assume the vast majority of Americans dislike government and what it provides. But public attitudes can be more complex than they appear, and it’s worth taking the time to understand what people really think.

First of all, not everyone hates the federal government.

In fact, attitudes vary considerably between demographic groups. According to the 2015 Public Affairs Pulse survey, 67 percent of black Americans and 60 percent of Hispanic Americans have a favorable opinion of the federal government, compared with only 38 percent of white Americans. Meanwhile, 54 percent of adults ages 18–29 feel positively about the feds, even though other age groups have negative opinions.

And some people who say they are anti-government soften a bit when polling questions are asked differently. Among all U.S. adults, 56 percent say they are “very” or “somewhat” confident that government remains capable of doing positive things, states a recent Global Strategy Group survey.

This brings me to my second point: People differentiate between the federal government itself and the services it provides. This is important to keep in mind whenever Congress and the White House face a budget showdown.

There is widespread support for funding key federal government programs, reported the Pew Research Center in a 2013 poll. High priorities include veterans benefits, Social Security, education, natural disaster relief, food and drug inspection, combating crime, Medicare, roads and infrastructure, anti-terrorism and agriculture. When Pew listed 19 spending categories, most people wanted to maintain or increase spending in all of them. Respondents’ lowest priority was foreign aid, which represents only 1 percent of the budget.

Sixty percent of Americans said they wanted to increase spending on education and 53 percent wanted to spend more on veterans benefits. Among Republicans, possible spending cuts in only two categories — foreign aid and unemployment assistance — drew majority support.

Third, the public is more concerned about corruption and inefficiency in government than its size. When respondents to the Global Strategies Group survey were asked to identify the single biggest problem with the federal government, the top vote-getter was corruption (23%), followed by inefficiency (18%), being out of touch (17%) and being wasteful (14%). In fifth place was the problem of government just being too big (9%).

Fourth, Americans don’t hate all levels of government; they just don’t like Washington. Attitudes about state government are consistently more positive than views about the federal government. In the Public Affairs Pulse survey, for example, 60 percent of Americans said they had a favorable view of their state government — and this opinion was consistent across numerous demographic groups.

The fifth — and perhaps most interesting — caveat about government ratings is that much of the anti-Washington sentiment comes from opposition to the party in power — and not from an aversion to government.

A new Gallup poll shows that 49 percent of Americans believe the federal government poses “an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” Yes, that’s shocking, but it’s less so when you realize that Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are significantly more likely than Democrats to agree with the statement.

In the same vein, during the George W. Bush administration, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents were consistently more likely to say the feds posed an immediate threat. In 2006, that resulted in 44 percent of Americans being worried about losing their rights and freedoms. Because anti-Obama intensity among Republicans has been stronger than anti-Bush intensity among Democrats, we’ve experienced an overall increase in concern about government across all segments of the U.S. adult population.

“The remarkable finding about these attitudes,” writes Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport, “is how much they reflect apparent antipathy toward the party controlling the White House, rather than being a purely fundamental or fixed philosophical attitude about government.”

Perhaps disdain for all forms of government is not as universal an opinion as we thought. So what are the implications for U.S. politics?

National candidates would be wise to focus on how to make government smarter — not just how to make it smaller. While modest budget reductions can be reasonably popular and rhetoric about jettisoning entire government agencies can generate enthusiastic applause at conservative forums, it’s hard to find major programs to cut that don’t have broad support.

Global Strategy Group argues this situation provides an opportunity for the Democratic Party, who the firm says is best positioned to promote an active, honest government that supports average Americans. Here’s another factor favoring Democrats: When Republicans advocate major cuts in federal spending, they may be further damaging their efforts to reach out to young people, Hispanics and other non-white voters.

And yet, the Global Strategy Group survey acknowledges, poll numbers show the public thinks the Republican Party is more capable of making government “less wasteful” and “more efficient.” In addition, with gridlock continuing in Washington, it’s safe to assume that more policy issues will be handled at the state level where public trust is higher. Republican governors (who now control 31 states) have an opportunity to build and capitalize on this trust.

As the presidential campaign season ramps up in both parties, we’ll see who steps forward to embrace the smarter-but-not-necessarily-smaller government message.

Comments? Email me.

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Danielle Del Carlo
Manager, Government Relations Practice
202.787.5978 | 

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