Washington's agenda in 2013 is going to include two hot-button issues that are seemingly unrelated: Tax hikes and gun control. But there's a unifying theme that will make both a bruising, and perhaps losing, battle for those backing them.
Thirty years ago, taxes were higher and gun laws were stricter. Both have eased over time, part of a 30-year trend toward a more permissive government. There are now strong contingents pushing for a return to higher levels of taxation—to help close huge annual deficits—and for tougher federal gun laws, to prevent massacres like the murder of 20 elementary school students and six adults in Newtown, Conn.
But there's one big thing standing in the way of both: Americans don't trust the government. Polls conducted by Gallup and other organizations show that trust in most institutions has been declining over the last 30 years, with government faring the worst. The percentage of Americans saying they trust Congress, the presidency and the Supreme Court is 10 to 30 percentage points lower than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. The 2008 financial crisis and subsequent bank bailouts pushed confidence to new lows, but it had already been falling for years as the government grew with few accomplishments to match. The only exception is the U.S. military, whose reputation has grown thanks to its proficiency in overseas combat operations.
There's a lot of evidence showing that Americans realize there's a need for higher taxes, and wouldn't mind paying them—except they don't trust the government to wisely spend their money. In another Gallup poll, respondents estimate the government wastes 51 cents of every dollar in taxes it collects—the highest number in more than 30 years of Gallup asking the question.
On gun control, the percentage of Americans favoring stricter gun laws has dropped from about 78 percent in 1991 to 44 percent today. That downward trend didn't change at all following the mass shootings in Tucson in Jan. 2011 or in Aurora, Colorado earlier this year. At the same time, the percentage of people saying the government itself represents a threat to the "rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens" has risen from 30 percent in 2003 to 46 percent in 2011.
That's a big jump, and it's not readily explained by any recent confrontations between citizens and government forces, such as the surreal 1993 battle between Branch Davidians and federal agents in Waco, Texas. Rather, Americans seem to feel the government's overreach in more benign ways, such as excessive regulation and Obama's healthcare reform laws, coaxed along, no doubt, by rhetoric on the far right bemoaning "socialist" policies emanating from Washington.
The net result is a breach of trust related to relatively small things, which makes bigger things, such as raising taxes or passing new gun laws, politically formidable.
So what can President Barack Obama do about it, if he truly intends to pursue "meaningful action" to reduce gun violence, as he promised on the day of the Newtown shootings? In the near future, not much. The Newtown massacre may generate a bit more support for gun control laws, but it won't boost trust in government, especially if Washington bungles other matters, as it's already doing by allowing the fiscal cliff negotiations to stretch to the 11th hour, while the economy stagnates. It's this very type of dysfunction, in fact, that makes Americans so suspicious of their political leaders.
If Obama could spend his second term working toward bipartisan accomplishments, such as tax and entitlement reform and a more stable balance between government revenue and spending, he might steer the bureaucracy back toward something that looks like competence to a majority of Americans. It would help if he could avoid fiascoes like Solyndra—the solar panel manufacturer that declared bankruptcy in 2011 after accepting $535 million in federal loans—and the Justice Deptmartment's "Fast and Furious" gun-running operation, which knowingly gave weapons to Mexican drug traffickers.
Beyond that, Obama could address concerns about excessive government by rolling back regulations that don't serve much of a purpose and even shrinking the government by a few agencies, which is something the majority of companies have had to do to stay healthy and competitive. If taxpayers saw the nation's chief executive applying the same type of discipline to government that it takes to succeed in the private sector, they might be more inclined to trust Washington with matters that directly affect their safety and livelihood. It's not like somebody else is doing a better job of it.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.