A number of Democratic presidential candidates this year are calling for an increased level of federal government involvement in healthcare, taxes, energy and education. At the same time, Democratic leaders in the House have introduced a sweeping legislative package designed to fix the federal government, with proposed new laws relating to voting, political money, redistricting and ethics.
Both developments -- calls for more government intervention and calls for government overhaul -- are part of a larger discussion about the appropriate role and size of the federal government. This discussion has been with us since the earliest days of the republic.
One thing Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson did not have as they argued about the contours of the new republic is the benefit of public opinion polling -- which provides a reliable window into the American public's thinking on these matters. And what we learn from recent polling is that Americans have mixed feelings about increased government involvement in their lives but feel very strongly that the way government works needs to be fixed.
Mixed Views on Increased Government Intervention
A long-standing Gallup trend question asks Americans if government should be doing more to solve problems rather than leaving that challenge to individuals and businesses. Americans are divided in their responses: Half say things are better left to business and industry, while 44% say the government should do more. Answers to a separate question show that slightly over half say the government has too much power today. And, given three choices for government regulation, well less than half say the government should do more to regulate business and industry (the rest say either that regulation is about right or that we need less regulation).
Despite holding these mixed general attitudes about enlarging the role of government, Americans are positive about some proposed specifics. Majorities of Americans say government should ensure that all Americans have healthcare, favor higher taxes on the rich, support government intervention into the energy and industrial systems that create pollution, favor stricter environmental regulations, and strongly favor more government expenditures on infrastructure. Americans also appear quite positive about some aspects of what government is already doing today. The public has more confidence in the military than in any other social institution we measure, and Americans 65 and older, most of whom are on Medicare, are more satisfied with their healthcare quality and coverage than Americans with private health insurance.
On the latter point, Kaiser Family research has shown that "Medicare for all" tests better than three other descriptions of a government-run healthcare system. This helps explain why proponents of universal healthcare are using that name, taking advantage of the presumption that Americans have a positive opinion of the existing Medicare program.
Americans Evince Little Confidence in Government
More Americans now than at any time in our Gallup history -- 35% -- say government is the most important problem facing the nation. These views appear to be almost totally aimed at congressional representatives, the president, gridlock, lack of cooperation or the recent government shutdown. Very few of those who name government as the most important problem mention the actual functions of government per se.
Americans' trust in government to handle both domestic and international problems is at a new low. Just 35% have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in government to handle domestic issues, and 41% have a similar amount of trust in government to handle international issues. This fits with previous Gallup research showing that the public views Congress as corrupt, believes special interests control Congress and that members of Congress are out for themselves -- not for the good of the people.
Also, keep in mind that only 21% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, and that presidential approval ratings are well below both the historical average and the majority level. The recent spectacle of a partial government shutdown for 35 days because of an inability to compromise and reach agreement did nothing to encourage Americans that their government has the maturity to govern.
All of this means, clearly, that the general idea of doing something to change our system of electing representatives and then controlling representatives' behavior once they are in office resonates with the public today.
Bottom Line: Democrats May Need to Focus First on Fixing Government
There are numerous crosscurrents in American public opinion on the size and scope of the federal government. Americans respect many of the things government does and support specific proposals for increased government involvement, while at the same time expressing reservations when asked general questions about the ideal role of government. Plus, and most important in my view, Americans continue to have strongly negative views of the elected representatives that ultimately control anything the government does.
My interpretation of these measures of public opinion suggests that the public's priority is fixing government -- already a front-burner issue this year with the previously mentioned, massive (nearly 700-page) legislative bill HR 1 introduced by Democratic leaders in the House and aimed at reforming many aspects of government.
How successful will this effort be? HR 1 is a huge compendium of many proposed changes, and, symptomatic of the problems it's trying to fix, the bill has already come under withering fire from conservatives and House and Senate Republican leaders. Plus, and not unexpectedly, business and lobbying interests have also come out against the reform bill. As one news report put it, "The nation's business and lobbying interests began publicly mobilizing Tuesday in a coordinated attack against House Democrats' signature campaign finance, lobbying, ethics and voting overhaul."
So, there appears to be little room for optimism when it comes to the probabilities that this type of reform -- not just this specific legislation -- is going to have a chance of being seriously debated in the halls of Congress. That's even though the general idea of fixing government, reforming the election process and attempting to control the factors that influence elected representatives' behavior while in office strikes a responsive chord among Americans.
Perhaps Republicans (and business leaders) would be well advised to acknowledge the virtues of the idea behind the law, and to put forward their own proposals to fix government. But at this point, it appears that the dysfunction that typifies government today is what is going to keep government from being able to fix that dysfunction.