Americans Still Think Government Is the Problem

A new Gallup poll shows more Americans think the government itself is the nation's top issue.

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This Jan. 20, 1981 file photo, shows President Ronald Reagan as he gives a thumbs up to the crowd while his wife, first lady Nancy Reagan, waves from a limousine during the inaugural parade in Washington following Reagan's swearing in as the 40th president of the United States.
President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan in 1981.

More Americans regard the government as the nation's No. 1 problem, according to a recent Gallup survey, outstripping concerns about health care, the economy, jobs, unemployment, national defense or the federal budget. "Americans start the new year with a variety of national concerns," the firm said Wednesday, but, at 21 percent, the government itself tops the list of things people said they found most troublesome.

"Mentions of the government as the top problem remain higher than they were prior to the partial government shutdown in October," the firm said. This is not surprising.

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During the crisis, the number of people who told Gallup they saw the government as the problem nearly doubled, to 33 percent, over what it had previously been. The seeming unwillingness of either party to lead toward meaningful compromise on the most important issues of the day – while helping to maintain enthusiasm among the political base of each – has many Americans posting record levels of dissatisfaction with the president and with the Congress as an institution.

Following closely behind in the random sample of slightly more than 1,000 adult Americans conducted Jan. 5-8, 2014, is, at 18 percent, the state of the U.S. economy, which has been moribund for most of the Obama presidency. Next in line are jobs and unemployment and the high cost of health care, which tied for third at 16 percent. No other issue cracked the double digit mark, though the federal budget deficit and federal debt, at 8 percent, came closest in the survey, which had an error margin of plus or minus 4 percent.

Interestingly, said Gallup, government is the top concern for Republicans, Democrats and self-identified independents, but Democrats were the least likely of the three to mention it. For Republicans, the next most important issue was health care, an unsurprising choice given the premium spikes, loss of coverage, web site inoperability and potential federal bailout of health insurance companies that have accompanied the introduction of Obamacare.

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"The issues that concern Americans at the start of 2014," said Gallup in identifying the "bottom line," are not that much different from what the firm measured in December "and not wildly different from those last January." What the data do not say is why people feel the way they do.

In a way, the polling reflects the current divide between Democrats and Republicans. For those who adhere to the party of Obama, government is a problem-solver. The president's inability to get his way, to carry out his agenda – whatever it might be, since he has not done an especially good job of articulating it – has produced considerable frustration among his base. For the GOP, especially the majority who still respond favorably to Reaganite messages, the overreach of government is the problem, regardless of which party is in power. At the macro level, it's the acting out of partisan complaints in conflict with a principled vision.

Most disturbing are the numbers of those, taxpayers and taxtakers alike, for whom the government's failure to solve the nation's most pressing problems comes as a surprise. America was built by individual initiative and risk-taking. Of late that has been replaced by government picking winners and losers in the marketplace and the development of a process by which the politically well-connected benefit from government largess in the form of subsidies, bailouts, loan guarantees and other special protections not available to the average working American, small businessman or true entrepreneur. The more government takes, the more frustrated people become because, after all, they know better how to address their own needs than the federal bureaucracy does.

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Policymakers and political consultants on both sides of the aisle would do well to study this divide long and hard. It played out in the 2012 presidential campaign but, in an odd way, with the taxtakers managing a win over the taxpayers – if things actually did break down along those lines, as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's repeated attacks on President Barack Obama's "You didn't build that" gaffe indicate was the case.

If there is an additional surprise in the Gallup survey, it is that the idea that government is the nation's No. 1 problem did not poll higher. It's not just that it's dysfunctional right now; it's that, even when it works as it should – meaning it acts as something just short of a European-style social welfare state controlled by special interests – it seems to do at least as much harm as it does good, if not more.

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