Beyond the tea party: What Americans really think of government

If you missed any of this year's primaries -- or just forgot -- here are the names and faces you need to know in November.
By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 12:45 AM

If there is an overarching theme of election 2010, it is the question of how big the government should be and how far it should reach into people's lives.

Americans have a more negative view of government today than they did a decade ago, or even a few years ago. Most say it focuses on the wrong things and lack confidence that it can solve big domestic problems; this general anti-Washington sentiment is helping to fuel a potential Republican takeover of Congress next month.

But ask people what they expect the government to do for themselves and their families, and a more complicated picture emerges.

A new study by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University shows that most Americans who say they want more limited government also call Social Security and Medicare "very important." They want Washington to be involved in schools and to help reduce poverty. Nearly half want the government to maintain a role in regulating health care.

The study suggests that come January, politicians in both parties will confront a challenging and sometimes contradictory reality about what Americans really think about their government. Although Republicans, and many Democrats, have tried to demonize Washington, they must contend with the fact that most major government programs remain enormously popular, including some that politicians have singled out for stiff criticism.

The new survey also shows that although Democrats and Republicans have rarely seen eye to eye, the gap between the two has widened significantly over a decade of partisan polarization.

Fully 80 percent of Republicans say the government's priorities are misplaced, and just 6 percent express a lot of faith in government when it comes to fixing economic problems or dealing with Social Security.

More broadly, a nationwide report card on the government shows barely passing grades: Washington was a C student in a poll 10 years ago. Today, more than four in 10 people give the government a D or F.

Most of those who see the country as headed off-course put "a great deal" of blame on the government. Overall, 55 percent of Americans say the government is not paying attention to the biggest issues. Similar percentages say the government does not use tax money wisely, is out of sync with their values and has not helped their families.

Half say the government has a big effect on their daily lives - up significantly from 10 years ago - but most of those say the impact is a negative one.

"I think the less the government governs us, the better we do," Norma Osuna, 48, said in a follow-up interview to the survey. A stay-at-home mother, she sees the country as going in a "socialistic" direction.

Nearly half of the 2,054 adults polled say the federal government threatens their personal liberties. There is a creeping sense - now shared by one in five Americans - that it is not possible for the federal government to be run well, given all the problems in the country.

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