Public trust in the federal government, Congress and the political parties is scraping rock bottom, the Pew Research Center reports today. The findings don’t invalidate what President Obama and the Democrats have done over the past year, but they do underscore the need for a new direction.
According to Pew’s Andrew Kohut, only 22 percent of Americans trust the government in Washington to do the right thing. Anger at Washington has intensified and, most important for progressives, the public seems to be souring on activist government. “…[T]he general public now wants government reform and a growing number want its power curtailed,” he says. The important exception is regulation of Wall Street, which Americans continue to favor by nearly 2-1.
Obama’s first year was dominated by the economic emergency and the Herculean task of passing a landmark health care reform. The administration had no choice but to spend prodigiously to prevent a general financial collapse and pump up a stricken economy. If you think the polls look bad now, imagine how much worse they’d be had Obama failed to take decisive action on the economic front.
The health care push may have been the domestic equivalent of a war of choice, in that Obama could theoretically have deferred it until the economy recovered. But it was the right choice for a president with large reserves of political good will, and for a Democratic Party finally given undivided control of the federal government and a mandate to tackle big problems.
There’s no denying the rising public backlash against government intervention and spending, though it probably has as much to do with lingering economic anxieties as what Obama and the Democrats have been doing. In any case, public sentiment for a smaller federal government has risen, while Democrats’ favorable ratings have tumbled 21 points to 38 percent, about the same as the GOP’s, says Pew. At the same time, the poll also shows that voters aren’t hobgoblins of consistency. Even as they complain about the influence of special interests, 56 percent also say government does not do enough to help average Americans.
Progressives shouldn’t lose too much sleep over the Tea Partiers, who are hardcore conservatives and extreme libertarians. But independents are another question. The Pew study confirms the trend of recent elections, which saw independents from Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts abandon Obama’s winning 2008 coalition. This portends a difficult midterm election for Democrats, since independents seem highly motivated to turn out in November and, according to Kohut, express strong preferences for Republican candidates in their district.
What can progressives do to staunch the defection of independent voters? They should pass financial reforms, reduce home foreclosures and get as much of the bailout money back as possible. But the main emphasis for the rest of the year should be on stimulating economic innovation and growth. They should pay particular attention to relieving regulatory burdens on entrepreneurs and new enterprises – including onerous paperwork requirements in the new health care law — which are the primary generators of new jobs.
Progressives also must lay the groundwork for serious deficit reduction and entitlement reform next year as unemployment subsides. The Obama administration should press hard on health reform’s new cost containment measures, and produce concrete plans for closing Social Security’s funding gap. It’s vital for them to show they can discipline federal spending, not just raise taxes.
Here the administration can learn from Bill Clinton’s experience. He too faced an electorate worried about public spending and deficits, and skeptical about suspicious of bureaucratic overreach. He not only produced budget surpluses (a feat Obama won’t be able to duplicate), but also gave priority to downsizing and “reinventing” the federal government.
Obama doesn’t need to echo Clinton’s assertion that “the era of big government is over.” But in this next phase of his presidency, he needs to be as ambitious in reforming government as he was last year in expanding government.