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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.

Yet these strong sentiments, often heard in campaigns this year, tell only half the story.

Even as Americans generally hold Washington in low regard, they still like much of the work it does. Support for government action on such issues as national defense, health care and fighting poverty remains high, in some cases just where it was a decade ago.

Nearly six in 10 say they want their congressional representatives to fight for additional government spending in their districts to spur job creation; fewer (39 percent) want their member of Congress to cut spending, even if that means not as many local jobs. This is a turnabout from September 1994, when 53 percent said they wanted their representative to battle against spending and 42 percent were on the other side.

Despite evident public dissatisfaction with the growth of the federal deficit, 50 percent of those polled say they would prefer more government spending to try to boost the economy. Forty-six percent say avoiding an increase in the deficit should take precedence.

Americans continue to see major areas of government spending as essential. Whether it is Medicare, Social Security, national defense, food stamps, education, unemployment benefits or environmental protection, about nine in 10 call these programs at least somewhat important.

On two government programs, Social Security and Medicare, there have been modest declines in the percentage of Americans calling the programs "very important," but overall the changes have been limited. Food stamps, which former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has tried to make an issue in the campaign this fall, are seen as vital by more than four in 10 Americans, significantly more than was said in the late 1990s.

But if those programs remain popular, confidence in the government's ability to solve problems has clearly deteriorated over the past decade, particularly when it comes to the economy. Eight years ago, roughly six in 10 Americans expressed confidence in Washington to solve economic problems. Today, less than half express faith.

"I think the economy is going to get better," said poll respondent Rick Mares, 39, of San Bernardino, Calif., adding, "It's going to take a really long time, and I don't think [the government is] making the right decisions. . . .By throwing money, you're just going to drag it out. I'm somewhat of a realist, and some other people are living in dreamland over there [in Washington]."

For Scottie Church, 39, of Winder, Ga., the answer is simple: "It's time to get back to basics. It's time for [the federal government] to get out of the way and let the private sector do its job."

But even at a time of reduced confidence overall and conservative criticism of social welfare spending, nearly two-thirds of Americans say the government should be doing more to fight poverty.

Carol Santos, 55, of Providence, R.I., sees the government as trying to help people like her, but the benefits she receives don't go far enough. "When all these big companies gave their high-ranking officials pay raises, it took away from the low to moderate community," she said. "The big-name companies . . . have done it to us little people. The government is trying to help, but it's fighting a losing battle."

Americans are divided almost evenly on whether Washington should provide more services, even if it means higher taxes, or should reduce services and collect less in taxes. The split on this question is similar to what it was in 2003, and is a striking contrast to public views in 1994, when most voters preferred a smaller government and Republicans rode the discontent to take control of Congress.

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