Gallup reports:

Gallup has asked Americans each August since 2001 to indicate whether they have positive or negative views of a list of business and industry sectors. The 2011 update is from Gallup’s Aug. 11-14 survey.

The results range from a +62 net positive rating for the computer industry to a -46 net positive rating for the federal government. . . . The positive and the negative ratings for the federal government this year are the worst since Gallup began measuring its image in 2003.

Understand that the federal government has lower approval and higher disapproval rating than oil companies.

So why is it that with President Obama doing so much, giving us free health care and all, that people think so poorly of the federal government? Well, the answer is pretty obvious: In doing too much, spending too much and regulating too much, the federal government has far exceeded its competency. The notion that we would learn to love Obamacare and other features of an enlarged federal bureaucracy has proved faulty.

One argument is to, in the words of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, try to make the federal government as “inconsequential” as possible. Inconsequential, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder, but I suspect that voters — notwithstanding Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) — still want FEMA, Social Security, Medicare and a bunch more functions performed by the federal government.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) at a speech at the American Enterprise Institute last December made this argument:

In fact, energetic government is impossible without limits. The idea that mainstream conservatives are anti-government is simply not true. . . Even Hayek said that . . . he reminded us that “the state has legitimate — and critical — functions for rectifying market failures and securing some minimum standard of living.” Edmund Burke, in many ways the founder of modern conservatism, was a champion of ordered liberty, recognizing the impossibility of one without the other. Recent history is filled with examples of conservative leaders. Think about Rudy Giuliani — think about what he did to clean up the police department in New York. Living in New York City is not the same as it was before he arrived. I look at Tommy Thompson, one of my political mentors, former governor of Wisconsin, who made bold steps to clean up the moribund welfare system in Wisconsin. Take a look at Mitch Daniels, who’s bringing consumer-directed health care reforms to Indiana. Think about Jeb Bush, who brought some much-needed and bold education reforms to Florida. These leaders have a couple of things in common. They were no strangers to energetic government, and they were widely admired by mainstream, limited-government conservatives. I’ve also embraced energetic yet limited government with my Roadmap for America’s Future. It is a plan that does not do away with government; it’s a plan that does not even do away with all of these entitlement programs. It’s a plan that makes these entitlement programs sustainable. It’s a plan that makes these programs something that we can live with in the next century while keeping a limited government and a free enterprise society. . . . Big government is lethargic government. A government whose size and scope is not properly limited will always seek to raise taxes before it looks for ways to innovate and do more with less. This is why those who do not share our attention to limited government have insisted that higher taxes are always the best way and the easiest and first approach to close our yawning deficits.

Politicians who glance at the polls and need some applause lines are tempted to trash government, trash Washington and do nothing more than commiserate with grump voters, like college roommates finding comfort in complaining about their parents.

The problem is that the American people really aren’t libertarians. They want a social safety net, a FDA, federal civil rights laws and more. They just want government to live within its means (more or less), not to impede prosperity (by misguided tax and regulatory policy) and to show some ability to innovate (as we did with welfare reform and criminal justice policy in the 1980s, to name two successes).

It’s interesting that the industry ranked the highest in the Gallup poll is the computer industry, an ever-evolving, constantly innovating business that provides for personal choice and thrives on competition. It’s unrealistic to expect the federal government to be as cool and popular as Apple, but it’s certainly possible to improve it.

We can start with removing from its purview those items for which the federal government has no real competency or that are nonessential. (A healthy discussion about whether light rail, green-job promotion and agriculture subsidies are nonessential would be a good start.) And then it’s time to reform what’s left.

The Obama administration has driven down the federal government’s ratings to an all-time low. It has no interest in paring back the size and scope of government (hence the hunger for tax hikes) and no insights into reforms that don’t embody top-down, one-size-fits-all government. Is there a Republican out there who has the interest and the insight? Let’s hope one emerges in the primary.