PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans' trust in the federal government to handle international problems has fallen to a record-low 43% as President Barack Obama prepares to address the nation on Wednesday to outline his plan to deal with ISIS. Separately, 40% of Americans say they have a "great deal" or "fair amount" of trust in the federal government to handle domestic problems, also the lowest Gallup has measured to date.
The results are based on Gallup's annual Governance poll, conducted Sept. 4-7. This year's poll was conducted at a time when the government is faced with instability in many parts of the world, including Iraq and Syria, the Middle East, and Ukraine. President Obama, who recently said he had "no strategy" for dealing with ISIS -- the Islamic extremists who have taken control of parts of Iraq and Syria and recently captured and beheaded two American journalists -- is set to present his plan for dealing with the group Wednesday.
Americans' confidence in the government to handle international problems slid 17 percentage points last year, when the Obama administration was planning military action against Syria. Russia later brokered an agreement to avert that action. Last year's poll marked the first time that fewer than half of Americans trusted the federal government's ability to deal with international threats. With the world stage seemingly more unstable now, the public's trust has dipped an additional six percentage points this year.
Likewise, trust in the government's ability to handle domestic problems dropped slightly this year after a larger decline in 2013. Although the economy has improved, it may be overshadowed by partisan gridlock in Washington, which has led to little formal government action to deal with important domestic challenges facing the United States. Indeed, Americans have consistently mentioned dissatisfaction with government as one of the most important problems facing the country in 2014.
The level of trust in the government to handle both domestic and international matters is nearly half what it was at the high point Gallup measured, shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks. In October 2001, 83% trusted the government's ability to deal with international problems and 77% trusted its ability to handle domestic ones.
Gallup asked the trust items three times in the 1970s, and at least once every year since 1997 with the exception of 1999. Prior to 2013, the low point in domestic trust was 43% in 2011, shortly after contentious negotiations to raise the federal debt limit, and the low point in international trust was 51% in 2007, as the Iraq war dragged on.
Democrats Maintain High Level of Trust in Government
Democrats' trust in the federal government has been far less shaken than that of Republicans and independents in the last two years. That likely stems from a Democratic president being in office -- supporters of the president's party typically show much more trust in government than other Americans do. That pattern is illustrated by the dramatic shifts in trust by party between 2008 and 2009, when Democrat Obama replaced Republican George W. Bush as president.
Currently, 70% of Democrats trust the government's ability to handle international problems, compared with 39% of independents and 27% of Republicans. Since 2012, Democrats' trust is down 11 points, compared with a 24-point drop for independents and a 26-point drop for Republicans.
Meanwhile, 63% of Democrats trust the federal government to handle domestic problems it faces, compared with 34% of independents and 28% of Republicans. In contrast to the declines in trust on international matters, the drops in trust on domestic matters since 2012 are similar by party group, with each down between six and 10 percentage points. This is, in part, because international trust was higher than domestic trust in 2012, and thus had more room to fall.
Gallup has never measured lower levels of trust in the federal government to handle pressing issues than now. That includes the Watergate era in 1974, when 51% of Americans trusted the government's ability to handle domestic problems and 73% trusted its ability to deal with international problems, and also at the tail end of the Bush administration when his job approval ratings were consistently below 40% and frequently below 30%.
The key question going forward is whether Americans' trust in the federal government can be restored. Although there have been short-lived increases in recent years, including in Obama's first year in office and in his re-election year, these were not maintained. The general trend since the post-9/11 surge has been toward declining trust. Simply voting new people into office may not be sufficient to restore trust in government. Rather, given the public's frustration with the way the government is working, it may be necessary to elect federal officials who are more willing to work together with the other party to find solutions to the nation's top problems.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 4-7, 2014, with a random sample of 1,017 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, and cellphone mostly). Demographic weighting targets are based on the most recent Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the most recent National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the most recent U.S. census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.
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.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.