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Americans' Trust in Government to Handle Problems at New Low

Americans' Trust in Government to Handle Problems at New Low

Story Highlights

  • 35% trust U.S. government to handle domestic problems, 41% international
  • 59% of Republicans, 28% of Democrats have confidence domestically
  • 66% of Republicans, 26% of Democrats have confidence internationally

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans' trust in the federal government's ability to handle both domestic and international problems has sunk to the lowest points in more than two decades. Thirty-five percent of Americans have "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust and confidence in the U.S. government's ability to deal with domestic issues, down from 45% four months ago. Over the same period, the reading for handling international issues has dropped nine percentage points, to 41%.

Line graph. Americans’ trust in the federal government’s handling of domestic and international problems since 1997.

The latest poll was conducted Jan. 21-27, as the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history was in its final days. On the international front, the U.S. was dealing with the political crisis in Venezuela, while President Donald Trump's plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and his upcoming North Korean summit continued to draw widespread bipartisan criticism.

These questions rating the public's trust in the government's handling of problems at home and abroad were included in several Gallup polls in the 1970s and have been regularly asked since 1997. The highest readings for both the domestic (77%) and international (83%) measures were recorded one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, when Americans rallied around the U.S. government and its leaders.

The current domestic and international readings are significantly lower than the September 2018 readings and are the lowest to date. The prior low points in trust, 38% for domestic problems in 2015 and 43% for international problems in 2014, were recorded during former President Barack Obama's second term, when Republican confidence was weak.

Trust in Handling of Domestic Problems Has Fallen Sharply Among Republicans

Although the 35-day partial shutdown of the government seems like the obvious explanation for why trust in the federal government's competency is at record lows, it may not be the only reason. Republicans' discouragement over losing their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in the November midterm elections could be another.

Nearly all of the decline since September in Americans' trust in government has occurred among Republicans and independents. Republicans' confidence in the government's ability to manage domestic problems has fallen 12 points since September to 59%, and independents' confidence has dropped nine points to 28%. At the same time, Democrats' 28% confidence is essentially unchanged, having already fallen from 71% in 2016 to 30% in 2018.

Line graph. Trust in the federal government’s handling of domestic problems among party groups since 1997.

Such declines in trust are consistent with past patterns of partisans reacting to a change in party control of the White House. That is, members of the sitting president's party have been consistently more likely to express confidence in the government's handling of domestic problems. After Trump took office in 2017, Republicans' trust more than doubled, while that of Democrats dropped by about half. A similar (though opposite) shift occurred after Barack Obama became president in 2009.

It is unclear whether Republicans' trust faltered over the past four months solely because of Democrats' midterm election victories or whether the 35-day partial government shutdown played a role. Even a majority of Republicans viewed the shutdown as a "crisis" (21%) or a "major problem" (36%). While a similar decline in trust might have been expected among Democrats, their confidence was already extremely low and possibly near its bottom.

GOP's Trust in Government's Handling of International Problems Has Also Dropped

Republicans' confidence in the federal government's handling of international problems fell from 84% in September to 66% now, while trust among independents (from 43% to 38%) and Democrats (from 31% to 26%) declined more modestly.

Line graph. Trust in the federal government’s handling of international problems among party groups since 2000.

The reasons behind Republicans' declining trust in the government's handling of international problems may be similar to those for domestic problems -- a change in control of the House or the lengthy government shutdown. In addition, rank-and-file Republicans may be following the lead of some GOP lawmakers who have publicly expressed displeasure with some of Trump's international policies. These include his decisions to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and to hold another North Korean summit.

Bottom Line

The public's trust in the government's handling of both domestic and international issues has been severely breached, reaching record lows in the latest polling. Until 2007, majorities of Americans consistently expressed confidence on both fronts.

Trust in the federal government to handle problems at home and abroad has consistently been prone to swings in partisans' views, depending on the party of the sitting president. The latest overall declines in trust, however, are mostly attributable to Republicans' falling confidence. Whereas a decrease in Democrats' trust might be expected under a Republican president, it is less common for a president's party faithful to abruptly lose trust in the government. This may be a temporary reaction to recent events or to Republicans' loss of power in Washington, but Trump and Republican leaders might want to take heed.

View complete question responses and trends.

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