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Narrow Majority Trust Government to Handle Foreign Problems

Narrow Majority Trust Government to Handle Foreign Problems

Story Highlights

  • 52% in U.S. trust federal government to handle international problems
  • 45% say the same about domestic problems
  • Sharp reversal in Democratic and Republican opinions since Trump's election

This story is part of a series focusing on Americans' confidence in various types of government, views of the political parties and of the role and power of government. Follow the series on our government topic page.

by Megan Brenan

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A slim majority of Americans, 52%, now trust the U.S. federal government to handle international problems, the first time this figure has been at the majority level in five years. Fewer, 45%, trust the government to handle domestic problems, similar to last year but above the record-low 38% in 2015. While these findings are far from the historical highs in Gallup's trend, trust in both areas has edged back up in recent years.

Trend: Americans' Trust in the U.S. Federal Government to Handle International and Domestic Problems, 2001-2017

The public generally has trusted the federal government to handle problems abroad more than those at home, and the current readings are no exception. The most recent results are based on Gallup's annual Governance poll, conducted Sept. 6-10. Trust, as it is described here, is defined as those who say they have "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust in the government.

Overall levels of trust for international or domestic problems, while markedly improved from two years ago, have changed little since last September. One year ago, 49% trusted the government with international problems and 44% with domestic problems.

The current readings are still low compared with Gallup's historical trends. One month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in October 2001, trust in the government's ability to handle both foreign and domestic problems peaked at 83% and 77%, respectively. A decline in those high readings was inevitable when the rally effect began to fade, yet it wasn't until two or three years ago that they reached their nadir.

Trust in handling international problems was high in Barack Obama's first term, but it began to collapse at the start of his second term when, among other problems, ISIS was on the rise and tensions with Russia and Syria were heating up.

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Republicans More Trusting Now Than a Year Ago

As with many issues today, partisans' opinions are highly influenced by which party is in the White House. As such, Democrats' trust in the government to handle both international and domestic problems has fallen sharply this year, while Republicans' trust on both dimensions has surged.

The current Democratic reading for trust in handling international problems, 40%, is the lowest since George W. Bush's last months in office. This marks a 34-percentage-point decline since one year ago when Obama was in the White House. Yet, the current Democratic reading is significantly higher than the 23% Republican reading from one year ago, representing some moderation on this dimension of the polarization picture.

Meanwhile, Republicans' trust in the government's handling of foreign issues, at 71%, has more than tripled since Donald Trump's election, although it is still lower than any reading for Republicans during the Bush administration. It is on par with the 74% of Democrats who were satisfied with the government's handling of international problems a year ago under Obama.

Trend: Trust in Federal Government to Handle International Problems, by Party

The party readings for trust in government's handling of domestic problems follow a pattern similar to that of international problems. Yet, each party's loyalists have less trust in the government to handle domestic issues than foreign issues.

  • Thirty-two percent of Democrats trust the government to handle domestic problems, down 39 points from one year ago when Obama was still in office and slightly lower than during the last year Bush was in the White House.
  • The confidence of Republicans, for their part, is up 37 points since last year, currently at 63% with Trump in the White House, although -- as was the case with international problems -- it is still below where it was under Bush.
Trust in Federal Government to Handle Domestic Problems, by Party

Bottom Line

Americans' trust in their government's ability to handle international problems continues to edge upward. Trust in the federal government's ability to deal with domestic problems is little changed since last year and remains lower than trust on international problems. What has changed dramatically, though, is Democrats' and Republicans' views on both readings since the 2016 election, as Republicans have become much more positive on both dimensions and Democrats' confidence has nosedived. On a relative basis, however, Republicans remain somewhat less confident in their government on both the domestic and international fronts than in the years of George W. Bush, the last Republican president before Trump.

The current results are more positive than other findings about the federal government this month. Dissatisfaction with government is No. 1 on Americans' list of "most important problems" facing the U.S. While more cited domestic issues than international ones as most important, rising tensions with North Korea topped the international problems Americans named in the poll.

This week, Trump took center stage in the international arena as he made his first visit to the United Nations General Assembly since taking office. This affords him the opportunity to build on the 52% of Americans who trust the government to handle international problems. It's a steeper hill to climb on domestic problems, which appear to be more deeply rooted in the public's overarching general dissatisfaction with government.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 6-10, 2017, with a random sample of 1,022 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. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 70% cellphone respondents and 30% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View survey methodology, complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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