Views of Government: Key Data Points
Trust in Government
For the past eight years, a period covering the final two years of the Bush administration and President Obama’s time in office so far, no more than about three-in-ten Americans have said they trust the federal government to do the right thing always or most of the time.
Our October survey found that just 19% say that they trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time, down seven points since January, and matching the level reached in August 2011, following the last battle over the debt ceiling. About three-in-ten Democrats (28%) say they can trust the government just about always or most of the time, compared with 10% of Republicans. Just 3% of Republicans aligned with the Tea party say they trust government.
A majority of Americans also say the federal government is a threat to their personal rights and freedoms.
In the January 2013 survey, 76% of conservative Republicans regard the government as a threat to their personal rights and freedoms and 54% consider the government to be a “major” threat, an increase over three years ago when 62% of them described it as a threat to their freedom and 47% said it was a “major” threat. By comparison, there is little change in opinion among Democrats; 38% say the government poses a threat to their personal freedoms and 16% view it as “major.”
Fewer Americans have a favorable view of the federal government, with the biggest decline in recent years coming among Democrats.
Since Barack Obama’s first year in office, favorable assessments of the federal government dropped 14 points, according to our March 2013 survey. For the first time since Obama became president, more Democrats say they have an unfavorable view of the federal government in Washington than a favorable view (51% unfavorable vs. 41% favorable).
Public anger at the federal government is as high as at any point since the Pew Research Center began asking the question in 1997.
The share of the public saying they are angry at the federal government stood at 30% in our October survey, up 11 points since January. Anger is most pronounced among Tea Party Republicans. Fully 55% of Republicans who agree with the Tea Party say they are angry with the federal government – about double the percentage among non-Tea Party Republicans (27%) and Democrats and Democratic leaners (25%).
The more negative view of the federal government has resulted in a growing gap between how Americans see Washington as compared to their state and local governments.
Ten years ago, roughly two-thirds of Americans offered favorable assessments of all three levels of government: federal, state and local. But in a survey conducted March 2013,public views of the federal government in Washington have fallen to a new low, while the public continues to see their state and local governments in a favorable light.
In the 2012 Values survey, 69% of Americans said the federal government should only run things that cannot be done at the local level.
While many Americans may oppose a range of cuts in specific government programs, the public overall favors smaller government providing fewer services than a bigger government providing more services.
Currently, Americans say by a 56 to 35% margin that they prefer a smaller government providing fewer services than a bigger one, according to our Sept. 2012 survey. These opinions have changed little over the course of Barack Obama’s presidency, although the margin did narrow in 2008. There was a substantial partisan divide on this question: 87% of Republicans favored the smaller government option compared to 28% of Democrats. Conversely, Democrats preferred bigger government over a smaller one by a 60% to 11% margin over Republicans. Independents favored a smaller government over a bigger one by 65% to 27%.
The trend in public opinion favoring a smaller role for government is reflected in declining support for the social safety net.
While a majority of Americans has consistently agreed it is the responsibility of government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves, this has slipped to 59% from 63% in 2009 and 69% in 2007, according to our Values Study conducted in April 2012.
Since 2007, Republican support for the safety net has declined significantly even as Democrats continue to support government aid to the poor and needy as they have over the last 25 years. As a result, the current party gap is now larger than ever.
Government regulation of business has become one of the nation’s most politically divisive issues.
In nearly every political values survey since 1987, majorities have agreed that “government regulation of business usually does more harm than good.” Partisan differences on this measure were far greater in 2012 than they were in 2007, the final year of George Bush’s presidency. About three-quarters (76%) of Republicans said that government regulation of business did more harm than good, among the highest ever. Just 41% of Democrats agreed, one of their lowest percentages ever.
There is substantial disagreement between Republicans and Democrats over whether the government has gone too far or not far enough in regulating markets and financial institutions since the financial meltdown of 2008.
By two-to-one, more Republicans say government regulations have gone too far making it harder for the economy to grow (64%), than say they have not gone far enough (32%), according to a September survey. Opinion among Democrats is the reverse: just 26% say the government regulations of financial institutions and markets have gone too far, while 62% say they have not gone far enough.
Branches of Government
Americans have a highly negative view of Congress.
Views of Congress remain historically negative, according to our July survey: just 21% have a favorable opinion of Congress while 70% view it unfavorably. Large majorities across nearly all demographic and partisan groups have an unfavorable impression of Congress.
The Supreme Court’s favorability rating has edged below 50% for the first time in nearly three decades of Pew Research Center polling.
Currently, 48% have a favorable opinion of the court while 38% have an unfavorable opinion, according to our July survey. Blacks’ views of the court have turned more negative. Partisan differences in opinions about the Supreme Court – which widened substantially last year after the court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act – have narrowed since then.
While trust in the federal government is at a low, most federal agencies are viewed favorably.
Nine of the 13 federal agencies and institutions included in our October survey are viewed favorably by 60% or more of the public. The IRS is rated less favorably than any of the other agencies and departments tested; 44% have a favorable opinion of the tax agency while 51% view it unfavorably. Opinions of the IRS, which faced controversy over reports that it targeted some conservative organizations seeking tax-exempt status, divide sharply along partisan lines.
Other Key Data Point fact sheets:
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