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Is the Public Ready for Bold Action?

It’s a mistake to put too much weight on the results of any single public opinion survey. That said, Peter Hart and Bill McInturff are an unusually experienced and fair-minded bipartisan team, and I’m inclined to take their work for NBC and the Wall Street Journal seriously. Their latest results offer little encouragement for the president, either political party, or the political system as a whole.

Let’s begin with the political system. Trust in government now stands at 23 percent—the lowest level in at least twelve years. A stunning 76 percent of Americans believe that the government in Washington will do the right thing only some of the time, or never. These statistics confirm the findings from a recent CBS/New York Times poll, and they suggest that proponents of government action must overcome deep skepticism. The Obama administration inherited a public sector most Americans regarded as broken, and nothing since the inauguration has fundamentally altered that perception.

One illustration: I recently had the opportunity to help design a survey of public attitudes towards health reform. The results, published jointly by Brookings and, showed broad public support for a range of reform options, including both Democratic and Republican proposals. Nevertheless, fully 53 percent of the respondents expressed the fear that if government gets more heavily involved in health care, it will just make matters worse. Similarly, the NBC/WSJ survey found 51 percent more concerned that government will end up “going too far and making the health care system worse than it now is in terms of quality of care and choice of doctor” versus only 44 percent concerned that the government will not do enough to lower costs and cover the uninsured.

These concerns may be related to the recent surge in the activities of the federal government. In the month after Barack Obama took office, 51 percent of Americans believed that government “should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people. Today, the figure stands at 46 percent. Meanwhile, the percent who believe that government is “doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals has risen from 40 to 48 percent. The shift has occurred in tandem with increased concern about our fiscal situation. According to Hart and McInturff, only 31 percent of respondents believe that the president and Congress “should worry more about boosting the economy even though it may mean larger budget deficits” versus 62 percent who say that the president and Congress “should worry more about keeping the deficit down, even though it may mean it will take longer for the economy to recover.”

This wariness about increased government spending does not mean people believe that the economy is on the mend. Fifty eight percent believe that we still have a way to go before we hit bottom (up from 52 percent just last month), and 63 percent believe that unemployment will continue to get worse.  Only 42 percent expect things to get better in the next twelve months, down from 47 percent just last month.

Congress and the major parties can draw little comfort from the Hart/McInturff report. Overall approval of “the job that Congress is doing” stands at 24 percent—down from an already anemic 31 percent shortly after President Obama’s inauguration. But while approval of the Democratic Party has declined from 49 to 42 percent during that period, public perceptions of the Republicans hasn’t improved either—26 percent approval in February, 25 percent today. “A plague on both your houses” may be the best summary of current public attitudes.

Finally, President Obama. His overall approval has fallen from 68 percent in January to 56 percent today. Only 44 percent both like him and approve of most of his policies, down from 55 percent. Only 56 percent see him as having strong leadership qualities, down from 70 percent. Compared to nine months ago, far fewer American see him as firm and decisive, or as willing to work with people whose viewpoints are different from his own. While 63 percent continue to believe that the economy is a situation Obama inherited, that’s down from 84 percent in February. If that trend continues, the president will own the economy by next spring. While 38 percent of Americans now think his health care plan is a “good idea” (up from 33 percent in April), the number who think it’s a “bad idea” has risen much more, from 26 to 42 percent. And the reasons are clear: many more Americans believe that the quality of their health care will get worse rather than better and that costs will rise rather than going down. In a similar vein, the Brookings/ found that despite the president’s repeated assurances, most Americans expect his plan to increase the budget deficit and raise their taxes.

This bad news does not warrant the conclusion that the president’s program has been misguided. It does suggest, however, that the bold actions he has undertaken have taken a toll in public confidence and support. As he and his advisors plan for the second year of his administration, they would do well to ask themselves how much more the people will bear. The man who famously called for l'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace" ended his life at the guillotine.