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Pew Research Center conducted this study to understand Americans’ evaluations of the federal government’s performance in a variety of areas, as well as their attitudes about the proper size and role of government. For this analysis, we surveyed U.S. adults online and by telephone.

We surveyed 11,001 U.S. adults online in July and August 2020. Everyone who took part is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.

We also surveyed 1,750 U.S. adults by telephone in July and August 2020. The surveys were conducted in both English and Spanish over the phone under the direction of Abt Associates. Respondents to this survey were randomly selected via a combination of landline and cellphone random-digit-dial samples. To ensure that the results of this survey reflect a balanced cross-section of the nation, the data are weighted to match the U.S. adult population by gender, age, education, race and ethnicity and other categories.

Here are the questions used for the report, along with responses, and its methodology.

Positive views of govt. performance on terrorism, disasters; negative views on public health, povertyFor years, public trust in the federal government has hovered at near-record lows. That remains the case today, as the United States struggles with a pandemic and economic recession. Just 20% of U.S. adults say they trust the government in Washington to “do the right thing” just about always or most of the time.

Yet Americans also have long expressed positive views of the federal government’s performance in several specific areas. And majorities want the government to play a major role on everything from keeping the country safe from terrorism to ensuring access to health care and alleviating poverty.

Attitudes about the appropriate role for government and its performance have changed only modestly since 2017, though Democrats have become more critical of government performance in some areas since then.

Among the public overall, majorities say the government does a very good or somewhat good job keeping the country safe from terrorism (72%), responding to natural disasters (62%), ensuring safe food and medicine (62%), strengthening the economy (54%) and maintaining infrastructure (53%).

Americans are far more critical of how the government handles several other issues, including managing the immigration system (just 34% say it does a good job), helping people get out of poverty (36%) and effectively handling threats to public health (42%).

Partisanship continues to be a major factor in attitudes about the government’s performance and its role. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are broadly positive about the government’s performance in most areas. Still, while substantial majorities of Republicans say the government is doing well in dealing in addressing natural disasters (89%), terrorism (87%) and the economy (80%), far fewer rate the government’s performance positively when it comes to helping people get out of poverty (59%) or managing the immigration system (58%).

Democrats and Democratic leaners are far more negative; for example, just 18% say the government does a good job assisting people to get out of poverty while 17% give the government positive ratings for dealing with public health threats.

There is more common ground among partisans in views of the role the government should play. Large majorities of Democrats (no fewer than about three-quarters) say the government should play a major role in all 10 areas included in the survey. Republicans are less uniformly supportive of a significant government role, but half or more say it should play a major role in nine of 10.

These are among the findings of Pew Research Center’s study of attitudes about government, which updates studies from 2019, 2017 and 2015. This study is based on two national surveys by Pew Research Center: A survey conducted July 27-Aug. 2 among 11,001 U.S. adults, including 9,114 registered voters, on the Center’s American Trends Panel; and a separate survey, conducted July 23-Aug. 4 on cellphones and landlines among 1,750 U.S. adults, including 1,455 registered voters.

Other findings from the surveys

Public trust in federal government near historic lows for more than a decadeJust 20% trust the federal government. During the last three presidencies – through the final years of the George W. Bush administration and the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the share of Americans who say they trust the government just about always or most of the time has been below 30%. Today, 20% say they trust the government. While the share of Republicans who trust the government has increased during Trump’s time as president, only 28% say they trust the government, compared with 12% of Democrats.

Democrats’ anger at federal government rises. Among both Democrats and Republicans, the dominant feeling toward the federal government is frustration, rather than anger or contentment. Still, roughly a third of Democrats (34%) say they are angry with the federal government, the highest share in more than two decades. Among Republicans, anger at the federal government decreased sharply when Trump became president. Today, 14% say they are angry with the federal government.

Majority of Americans say the country ‘can always find ways to solve our problems’Majority continues to say that Americans can solve problems. Despite the pandemic and the grim national mood, a majority of adults (57%) continue to say that, as Americans, we can always find ways to solve our problems and get what we want. This is essentially unchanged since September 2019, when 55% expressed optimism in the country’s ability to solve its problems.

Republicans are somewhat more likely than Democrats to say that Americans can always find ways to solve our problems. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans say this (65%), compared with half of Democrats.

Majorities of both Republicans and Democrats see a major role for the federal government in many areas

Majorities of adults say that the federal government should play a major role on a wide variety of issues. Roughly nine-in-ten say the government should play a major role in keeping the country safe from terrorism (91%), responding to natural disasters (87%) and ensuring safe food and medicine (87%). Smaller majorities say it should play a major role in helping people get out of poverty (62%) and ensuring access to health care (65%).

Wide partisan divides on whether govt. should play ‘major role’ on health care, the environment, povertyAcross the board, substantial majorities of Democrats and Democratic leaners say that government should play a major role in addressing these issues. There is greater variance in opinions among Republicans and GOP leaners. While 95% of Republicans say the government should have a major role in keeping the country safe from terrorism, and a sizable majority says the same about managing the immigration system (85%), only about half say the government should play a major role in protecting the environment (52%) or helping people get out of poverty (50%). And just four-in-ten Republicans (42%) say the federal government should play a major role in ensuring access to health care.

Republicans and Democrats are farthest apart in how they view government’s role in ensuring access to health care, with a 43 percentage point gap between the share in each party who say the federal government should have a major role. There is also a 38-point gap on the issue of protecting the environment and a 24-point gap on helping people out of poverty, with Democrats more likely to say the government should have a major role in each case.

Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to say the federal government should have a major role in managing the U.S. immigration system (85% of Republicans vs. 78% of Democrats) and keeping the country safe from terrorism (95% vs. 89%). Nearly identical shares of Republicans (77%) and Democrats (79%) say the government should play a major role in strengthening the economy.

More want government to play a major role than say it does a good job

Sizable gap between public’s views of government’s role and its performanceMajorities of adults say the federal government should play a major role in 10 issue areas included on the survey, including protecting the environment, maintaining infrastructure and helping people get out of poverty. And yet the shares who say the federal government is doing a good job on each of these issues are consistently much lower than the shares who want it to play a major role.

This gap is largest when it comes to managing the U.S. immigration system. About eight-in-ten adults (81%) say the federal government should play a major role in managing the U.S. immigration system, though about one-third (34%) who say it is doing a good job of this. And nearly eight-in-ten (78%) say the federal government should play a major role in handling threats to public health, while 42% who say it is doing a good job.

Republicans much more likely to say the government is doing a good job of handling threats to public health, responding to natural disasters

Largest partisan gaps in views of government performance on handling public health, disasters, environmentMore than three years into the Trump administration, the partisan divides over assessments of the federal government’s performance in a number of issue areas have grown, with Republicans much more likely than Democrats to provide a positive assessment of the job the federal government is doing.

Republicans are especially positive in their assessments of the government’s performance in responding to natural disasters, with nearly nine-in-ten Republicans (89%) saying the government is doing a very or somewhat good job of this. Large majorities of Republicans also say the government is doing a very or somewhat good job of keeping the country safe from terrorism (87%) and strengthening the economy (80%).

The only area in which a majority of Democrats say the federal government is doing a very or somewhat good job is in keeping the country safe from terrorism, with 61% of Democrats saying this. Half of Democrats also say the government is doing a good job of ensuring safe food and medicine.

Amid national concerns over the coronavirus outbreak, 70% of Republicans say the federal government is doing a very or somewhat good job of effectively handling threats to public health, compared with just 17% of Democrats.

Republicans and Democrats are similarly divided in their assessments of the job the federal government is doing in protecting the environment and in responding to natural disasters.

Since Trump’s election, Republicans are far more positive about government, Democrats more negativeRepublicans are at least 50 percentage points more likely than Democrats to say the government is doing a good job in each case.

On several issues, the gap between Republicans’ and Democrats assessments of the federal government’s performance has increased since December 2017, shortly after Donald Trump’s election as president.

And the differences have increased even more since 2015, when Barack Obama was president.

On protecting the environment, for example, comparable shares of Republicans (62%) and Democrats (58%) said the government was doing a good job in 2015.

In 2017, more than twice as many Republicans (71%) as Democrats (28%) gave the government positive ratings. Today, the gap is even wider (73% of Republicans, 18% of Democrats).

Similarly, five years ago majorities of Democrats (82%) and Republicans (78%) said the federal government did a good job responding to natural disasters. The share of Democrats who express positive views of the government’s handling of natural disasters declined to 51% in 2017 and 39% today. Republicans have remained overwhelmingly positive (89% currently).

The partisan gap in the government’s handling of immigration has increased markedly after Trump’s election. The share of Republicans saying the government is doing a good job of this has increased from 38% to 58% since 2017, while the share of Democrats saying the government is doing a good job has decreased from 29% to 14%.

Public trust in government remains low

Public trust in the federal government has been low for more than a decadeSince the onset of the Great Recession in 2007, the share of Americans who say they trust the federal government to do what is right either just about always or most of the time has hovered near 20%. This remains true today, with 2% saying they trust the government just about always and 18% saying they trust the government most of the time. Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) say they trust the federal government to do what is right either some of the time (65%) or never (14%).

Among Republicans, trust in the federal government has increased since the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. A within-administration moving average places the average share of Republicans who trusted the federal government just about always or most of the time at 11% shortly before the 2016 presidential election. The average share of Republicans expressing trust in the federal government increased to 25% in April 2017 and currently stands at 28%.

Republicans’ trust in the federal government has increased since the beginning of Trump’s term in office

Today, just 12% of Democrats trust the federal government to do what is right – an historic low. Prior to Trump’s inauguration, the lowest average share of Democrats saying they trusted the government always or most of the time over the more than 60 years since the question was first asked, was 17%, towards the end of George W. Bush’s administration (and prior to the 2008 election) in 2008. More Democrats now say they never trust the federal government to do what is right (17%) than say they can trust it always or most of the time.

Overall feelings toward the federal government have been steady in recent yearsOverall feelings about the federal government are little different than they were in March 2019. About a quarter (24%) say they feel angry toward the federal government today (21% said this in March 2019). A 57% majority reports frustration, while 18% say they are basically content.

Overall feelings toward the federal government have been remarkably stable over the past five years. The shares who say they are angry (24%), frustrated (57%) and content (18%) with the government are each identical or nearly identical to October 2015.

About a third of Democrats now say they feel angry toward the governmentWhile the overall share who are angry is unchanged, Republicans and Democrats have moved in opposite directions since 2015. A year before the 2016 presidential election, one-third of Republicans said they were angry with the government, compared with about one-in-ten Democrats (11%). About a year after Trump’s inauguration, the share of Republicans saying they were angry had declined to 19%, while the share of Democrats saying this had increased to 29%. Today, about one-third of Democrats (34%) say they are angry, compared with just 14% of Republicans.

Partisan divisions persist over size, role of government

Nearly six-in-ten say government should do more to solve problemsNearly six-in-ten U.S. adults (59%) say the government should do more to solve problems, compared with about four-in-ten (39%) who say government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.

The share who say government should do more to solve problems has increased slightly, by 4 percentage points, since September 2019. The share who say this is 12 points higher than it was in April 2015.

While two-thirds of Republicans (66%) say that government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals, the share of Republicans and Republican leaners who say government should do more to solve problems has increased – from 23% to 32% – since 2015.

Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, the share who say government should do more to solve problems has increased from about two-thirds (68%) in 2015 to about eight-in-ten (82%) today.

Large partisan gap in views of size of governmentAbout half of Americans (52%) say they prefer a bigger government providing more services, while 45% say they prefer a smaller government providing fewer services.

(Americans’ views on this question about the size of government have held relatively steady over the past four years. However, there are modest mode differences on this question. Therefore, caution should be used in comparing responses to this question from the current online American Trends Panel survey to the long-term phone trend. Please see the appendix for more details.)

Men are nearly evenly divided, with about half (51%) preferring a smaller government and a similar share (48%) preferring a larger government. Among women, a majority (56%) prefer a bigger government, while four-in-ten prefer a smaller government.

White adults are much more likely than Black or Hispanic adults to prefer a smaller government providing fewer services. There are notable differences among age groups, as well: More than six-in-ten adults ages 18 to 29 (64%) prefer a bigger government, as do a narrower majority of 30 to 49-year-olds (56%). Adults ages 50 to 64 are evenly divided, while those 65 and older are the only age group in which a majority (55%) prefer a smaller government.

Republicans and Democrats are sharply divided in their views of the size of government. About three-quarters of Republicans (74%) say they prefer a smaller government providing fewer services. A nearly identical share of Democrats (76%) say they prefer a bigger government providing more services. Among conservative Republicans, more than eight-in-ten (83%) prefer a smaller government that provides fewer services; an identical share of liberal Democrats prefer a larger government that provides more services.