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Trust in Government Remains Low

PRINCETON, NJ -- Gallup's annual Governance poll finds a continued deterioration in public confidence in U.S. government institutions. Just 26% of Americans say they are satisfied with the way the nation is being governed, the lowest in the eight-year history of the Governance poll and tying a 1973 Gallup reading as the lowest ever.


The percentage of Americans satisfied with the way the nation is being governed has declined each year since 2002, when a high of 59% were satisfied.

The low levels of satisfaction with the government measured in this year's poll, conducted Sept. 8-11, seem to derive from highly negative evaluations of the jobs President Bush (31% approve) and Congress (18% approve) are doing. Fifty percent approve of the Supreme Court.

Another indication of Americans' disappointment with Bush and Congress is the historically low levels of trust the public has in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.

The poll finds trust in the executive branch, headed by the president, near the record low from the Watergate era. Just 42% of Americans say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the executive branch, similar to last year's 43%, but the lowest since a 40% reading in April 1974. Trust in the executive branch has been below 50% each of the last three years. That coincides with the roughly two-year trend in sub-40% job approval ratings for Bush.


Trust in the legislative branch is only slightly better than trust in the executive branch, with 47% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in Congress. But this marks a new low for Congress, as trust in the legislative branch has dropped below 50% for the first time in 15 measurements Gallup has taken since 1972.


At 69%, Americans' level of trust in the judicial branch of the federal government remains strong, and is virtually unchanged from where it has been each of the last four years.


While public frustration with the government seems directed more at Congress and the president than the Supreme Court, it also appears to have to do more with the government's performance on domestic rather than international matters.

The poll finds just 48% of Americans saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the government's ability to handle domestic problems, essentially the same as last year's all-time low of 47%.


At the same time, a majority of 56% trusts the government's ability to handle international problems. This is a rare area where public attitudes about government have actually improved. Last year, 51% were satisfied with the federal government's handling of international matters, which was an all-time low. The greater trust may result from U.S. progress in the Iraq war over the last 12 months.


Partisan Differences

While no demographic or political subgroup of Americans shows a high level of satisfaction with the way the nation is being governed, Republicans (48%) are much more likely to do so than are independents (23%) or Democrats (9%).

Republicans also express greater trust in the executive and judicial branches, as well as in the government's ability to handle international and domestic problems, than do Democrats and independents. On the other hand, Democrats are more trusting than other party groups in the legislative branch, currently controlled by the Democratic Party. Thus, trust to a large degree is influenced by which party controls the various branches of government.



The public is clearly frustrated with the government's performance; thus, the presidential candidates' competition to be viewed as the "candidate of change" makes sense. It is unclear how much a change in leadership by itself will necessarily improve public trust. Gallup has only limited evidence in this regard, having asked about trust in the government's ability to deal with domestic and international issues around the last administration change in 2001. The public expressed slightly more trust in the government to deal with both domains in February 2001 compared with July 2000 -- suggesting a modest "honeymoon" period in public trust for the new administration.

But ratings of government institutions are to a large degree influenced by assessments of conditions for the United States both domestically (especially in terms of the economy) and internationally. Historically, these assessments have been slow to recover when at similarly low levels.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,007 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 8-11, 2008. 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.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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