By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Sunday, October 10, 2010; A1
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.
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.
Also little changed in recent years is the percentage of Americans who see themselves as fiscal conservatives: About half of those polled identified themselves that way, almost identical to the proportion saying so in the summer of 2007.
Declining confidence in how government works now does not mean Americans believe it cannot work. Americans overwhelmingly think the country can be well run, although the percentage saying its problems are too big for effective governance has doubled from the early 1970s.
Despite the common view that the 2009 stimulus package has largely been a waste of money, Obama fares far better than President George W. Bush did in terms of public perceptions of how they managed the economy. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the Bush administration's actions made the economy worse. Assessments tilt more on the work the Obama administration has done to deal with the country's economic challenges: Forty percent say those efforts have made things better and 30 percent say they are worse, with the rest undecided.
Whatever dissatisfaction Americans might have about the way Washington works, however, nearly eight in 10 say that whatever its faults, the American system is the best in the world.
Perhaps the biggest change over the past decade is the growing partisan gap.
Today, 59 percent of Americans say the country is seriously on the wrong track, up a dozen percentage points from the summer of 2000. The change has been driven by a dramatic rise in pessimism among Republicans, with virtually no change in perceptions among Democrats. Fully 61 percent of Republicans say that the country is headed in the wrong direction, and that the federal government deserves a great deal of the blame.
The percentage of Democrats who give the federal government a grade of A or B has dipped from 47 to 42 percent; the percentage of Republicans giving Washington these top marks has plummeted from 28 percent to 8 percent.
Conversely, Democrats are far more likely than a decade ago to say they favor more government services, even if that means more taxes. Republicans have barely moved on that topic. And compared with three years ago, more Republicans now consider themselves "very conservative" on fiscal issues, just as more Democrats consider themselves liberals on budgetary issues.
The polarizing debate over health care has left its mark on Republicans and independents far more than on Democrats. Ten years ago, three-quarters of independents said they favored more government involvement to ensure access to health care coverage. Today, half do. Among Republicans, the falloff is more dramatic, sliding from 53 to 21 percent.
When it comes to supporters of the fledgling tea party movement, about three-quarters want government to scale back or eliminate its involvement in providing access to health care. But in other areas, including poverty reduction, 50 percent or more say there should be the same amount or more federal involvement than there is now.
Tea party supporters overwhelmingly say they would prefer a smaller federal government, and 81 percent consider themselves to be fiscal conservatives (56 percent say they are "very conservative"). Regarding the upcoming elections, the vast majority of tea party supporters say they want the GOP to take control of Congress.
One challenge for policymakers is that half the country thinks the federal government can balance its budget by simply cutting wasteful spending. In fact, eliminating waste in the budget would do very little to bring down the size of the deficit. Nearly as many say they think some useful programs will have to go to bring the deficit under control, but the number saying so has slipped since the mid-1990s.
When it comes to possible reforms, 60 percent say a constitutionally mandated balanced budget would make government in Washington work better. Just over half say the same about easing electoral laws to make it easier for third parties to compete with Democrats and Republicans.
A more radical proposition also has broad appeal: Fifty-six percent of those polled say things would be better if there were a national referendum system enabling all citizens to vote on major national issues. At least on this point, there is rare general agreement among Democrats, Republicans and independents.
The poll, the 20th in a collaborative reporting series with Kaiser and the Harvard School of Public Health, was conducted by telephone Sept. 22 to Oct. 3, and included interviews with 2,054 randomly selected adults. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
Assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp, polling consultant Meredith Chaiken and staff writer Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.