skip to main content
Trust in Federal Government's Competence Remains Low

Trust in Federal Government's Competence Remains Low

Story Highlights

  • Less than half in U.S. trust federal government for domestic problems
  • Levels of trust in executive, legislative branches lag trust in judicial branch
  • Trust in the American people's judgment, at 56%, tied with all-time low

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- At the same time Americans want the government to take a more active role in solving the country's problems, Americans' levels of trust in the federal government to handle the two broad types of challenges the country faces remain near their all-time lows. Just under half (48%) say they have a "great deal" or "fair amount" of confidence in the government to handle international problems, and 41% say the same about domestic problems.

Line graph. Trend since 1997 in Americans' trust in the federal government to handle international problems, and separately domestic problems. After peaking in October 2001 at 83% and 77%, respectively, these figures have gradually trended down and has mostly been at or below 50% since 2013.

These latest figures, from Gallup's Aug. 31-Sept. 13 annual Governance poll, are essentially unchanged from 2019 and match the averages recorded since President Donald Trump took office in 2017. They are also within one percentage point of the trust levels measured during former President Barack Obama's second term, from 2013 to 2016, but below those in his first term.

In 2012, after Obama had declared an end to the war in Iraq and was promising to end the war in Afghanistan, Americans were particularly confident in the government's ability to handle international problems (66%).

Gallup first asked these questions in the 1970s and then picked them up again in 1997, and has since asked them every year except for 1999. The trend since 1997 shows that trust peaked in October 2001, a month after 9/11, at 83% for international problems and 77% for the domestic arena. Since then, these figures have gradually trended downward and have mostly been at or below 50% since 2013.

Low Trust to Solve Problems Mirrored in Ratings of Branches

Americans' relatively low trust in the government to handle international and domestic problems is reflected in their ratings of the two branches of government responsible for foreign and domestic policy -- the executive and legislative.

Currently, 43% of Americans say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the executive branch, similar to Trump's 42% job approval rating in the same survey. Confidence in the executive branch has been as low during the Trump presidency as it was toward the end of George W. Bush's presidency (42% in 2008 and 43% in 2007).

At 33%, Americans' trust in the legislative branch is on the low side for that trend -- although not as low as in 2014, when it sank to 28% at a time of extreme partisan gridlock in Congress.

Meanwhile, trust in the judicial branch has remained relatively high across the past quarter century, with 67% currently expressing a great deal or fair amount of trust in it. This exceeds the Supreme Court's approval rating of 53% in the same poll.

Line graph. Trend since 1997 in Americans' trust in the three branches of the federal government. Trust in the judicial branch which is currently 67% has been consistently higher than trust in the executive (43%) or legislative branches (33%).

Local Is Best When It Comes to Governing

In addition to measuring trust in all three branches of the federal government, Gallup has measured trust in several other aspects of American government and public life since 1972. This includes trust in state government, local government, the mass media, the men and women who serve in politics, and the American people as a whole when it comes to making judgments under our democratic system about the issues facing our country.

Local government currently edges out the judicial branch in generating the most trust, with 71% of Americans saying they trust it a great deal or fair amount. Solid majorities also trust state government and the American people, while less than half trust the mass media and the people who run for or serve in public office. However, the current level of trust in the American people (56%) is tied for the record low, previously recorded in 2016.

Since 1972, majorities have consistently expressed trust in local government, state government, the judicial branch and the American people.

Trust has varied for the others, from about seven or eight in 10 viewing each positively at its highest point to as few as 28% at its lowest. Current trust levels in public candidates and officials, the executive branch and the legislative branch are near their all-time lows.

Americans' Trust in Aspects of Government -- Today vs. Historical Highs and Lows
% A great deal/fair amount
2020 High Low 2020 vs. Low
% % % pct. pts.
Local government 71 77 63 +8
Judicial branch 67 80 53 +14
State government 60 80 51 +9
American people 56 86 56 0
Men and women in political life 45 68 42 +3
Executive branch 43 73 40 +3
Mass media 40 72 32 +8
Legislative branch 33 71 28 +5
"High" and "Low" figures are from 1997 to 2019

Partisans' Trust Varies Greatly

As expected, Americans' current rating of the executive branch reflects an enormous partisan gap, with 91% of Republicans versus 37% of independents and 6% of Democrats feeling confident in it.

The mass media -- sometimes known as the Fourth Estate for its notable political and social influence -- is the only other entity measured that rivals the executive branch in provoking different partisan reactions. Democrats (73%) are 63 points more likely than Republicans (10%) to express confidence in it.

The judicial branch, led by the Supreme Court, currently sparks a 24-point partisan gap, with 82% of Republicans and 58% of Democrats expressing a great deal or fair amount of confidence in it. Meanwhile, ratings of the legislative branch differ little by party (just five points), which is typical at times of divided party control of the U.S. House and Senate, such as exists today.

Americans' Trust in Aspects of Government, by Party
% A great deal/fair amount
Republicans Independents Democrats Partisan gap^
% % % pct. pts.
Executive branch 91 37 6 +85
Judicial branch 82 63 58 +24
American people 62 63 57 +5
Legislative branch 33 29 38 -5
Local government 69 67 79 -10
State government 56 56 69 -13
Men and women in political life 44 33 61 -17
Mass media 10 36 73 -63
^ % Republicans minus % Democrats
Gallup, Aug. 31-Sept. 13, 2020

The 85-point difference between Republicans' and Democrats' views of the executive branch is the widest Gallup has recorded for this trend dating back to 1997, similar to the extreme political polarization recorded this year for Trump's job approval rating.

Republicans' and Democrats' levels of confidence in the legislative branch have tended to diverge more when the same party controls the House and Senate than they do currently. That was the case in late 1998 and 1999 after Republicans retained majorities in both chambers during the 1998 midterm elections, and from 2007 to 2010 after Democrats gained full control in the 2006 midterms.

While higher than the average five-point gap recorded since 1997, today's 24-point partisan gap for the judicial branch is similar to the gap seen from 2005 to 2008 and in most years since 2015. Regardless of the magnitude of party differences, the president's party tends to view the judicial branch more favorably than does the opposing party, and that has continued under Trump.

Today's relatively modest trust in the American people reflects similar ratings from Republicans (62%) and Democrats (57%), suggesting both parties have reason to be less than enthusiastic about the political acumen of their fellow Americans.

Bottom Line

As the country is engaged in critical efforts to combat the medical, economic and societal effects of the global coronavirus pandemic, Americans' trust in the federal government to handle domestic issues is near its lowest point in Gallup trends since 1972, as is their trust in the executive and legislative branches, public officials generally, and the American people themselves.

The remaining bright spots in Americans' views of government, at least for now, are their levels of trust in local and state governments -- both of which have played key roles in responding to the pandemic -- as well as the judicial branch.

View complete question responses and trends (PDF download).

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030