Corrected on 12/10/07: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported poll data relating to public perceptions of media bias. In fact, 78 percent of respondents said the media are biased; of that group, 52 percent said the media are too liberal, and 27 percent believed the media are too conservative.
In addition, researchers at the Center for Public Leadership now believe the poll number relating to confidence in the entertainment industry may be inaccurately low.
Talk about a tough crowd. Americans have steadily lost confidence in their leaders since 2005—the year the government bungled its handling of Hurricane Katrina—according to the third annual Center for Public Leadership/U.S. News poll conducted this fall. More than three quarters of the respondents say they believe the country is going through a leadership crisis, up 7 percent from last year, a trend stretching across all demographic and political groups. Nearly 80 percent feel that unless it gets better leaders, the country will decline, while 51 percent believe that the United States is already falling behind other nations. And about two thirds say that today's leaders pale in comparison with those of 20 years ago.
That's a sobering critique, but given the dismal approval ratings of President Bush and Congress, these results aren't too surprising. "A lot of leaders are really impotent in changing the direction of things," says Brown University Prof. Arnold Ludwig, author of a book on political leadership. He points specifically to Congress. "People are frustrated as to why the Democrats can't stop the war, why they can't curb the president. Leaders are supposed to get things done."
Poll respondents certainly reflect that frustration. Only 9 percent say they have a great deal of confidence in Congress's leadership. The executive branch fares somewhat better with 19 percent.
Broad discontent. It's not just political leaders who are failing in the eyes of citizens. Wall Street ties with Congress in its low ranking, followed by the media, which many consider tainted by bias. Seventy-eight percent believe the media are biased; of that group, 52 percent said the media are too liberal, and 27 percent thought they are too conservative. But the press escaped coming in last. That distinction goes to the entertainment industry, despite—or perhaps because of—its growing visibility in politics.
Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center, explains that shaky confidence often goes hand in hand with scandal. There's been plenty, with "Plamegate" and Sen. Larry Craig's restroom fiasco as two recent examples. "Scandals are the most public version of poor performance," Smith says.
So who earns the highest regard? Overwhelmingly, it's the nation's military leaders: Forty percent of respondents say they have a great deal of confidence in those who lead the armed forces.
There's some encouraging news even for political and business leaders. With a traditional sense of American optimism, a majority of people—59 percent—believe the country will have better leaders 20 years down the road. Almost half hope 2008 will start that trend, many saying it matters a great deal who becomes the next president. Whoever that is will be facing a crowd hungry to see results.