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Americans Split on Size, Power of Government

by Darren K. Carlson, Government and Politics Editor

Last week, President George W. Bush unveiled the $2.4 trillion federal budget for 2005. Administration officials have applauded the program’s emphasis on homeland security and the president’s intent to cut the federal budget deficit in half over the next five years. Democratic officials have criticized the plan’s fiscal shortfall, which will lead to a record-high deficit of $521 billion.

The budget flap is a clear reminder to Americans of the immense scope of the U.S. federal government, and the public is divided as to whether this scope has exceeded an acceptable limit. Gallup asked Americans to assess the size and power of the federal government in a mid-January poll* -- prior to the official release of the budget. Specifically, 10% of Americans are very satisfied with the size and power of the federal government, and 38% are somewhat satisfied. Thirty-one percent are somewhat dissatisfied, while 20% are very dissatisfied.

These January 2004 findings fall roughly in line with results gathered last year. They’re also statistically similar to results from early 2001, although 2004 marks the first time that more Americans have been dissatisfied than satisfied. The upward spike in satisfaction with the federal government’s size and power in January 2002 was likely the result of the prolonged "rally" in government ratings that occurred after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Satisfaction With How Well Government Works

The January 2004 survey also found that Americans are more satisfied than dissatisfied with their system of government and how well it works. Six in 10 (61%) say they are either very or somewhat satisfied in response to that question, while 39% are dissatisfied. Again, these findings are comparable to those from last year, but they’re significantly lower than the ratings from 2002 and 2001.

Americans’ satisfaction with the way the government works is strongly associated with their political affiliation. Three-quarters (75%) of Republicans are satisfied with the U.S. system of government and how well it works, compared with 63% of independents and just 48% of Democrats. The higher satisfaction among Republicans is doubtlessly linked to the fact that their party currently controls both Congress and the White House.

Bottom Line

As one might expect, there is a strong correlation between public opinion on how well the U.S. system of government works, and opinion on the federal government’s size and power. Those who say they are satisfied with the government’s size and power are nearly twice as likely to say they are satisfied with how well the system of government works.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,004 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 12-15, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.


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