Majority Of Respondents Don't Trust Washington
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Several surveys by the Pew Research Center came up with the same result.
MONTAGNE: In one interview after another, Americans were harshly critical of the government. The survey said Americans are more negative about the government, quote, "by almost every conceivable measure."
INSKEEP: In the coming days, we'll report on Americans' distrust of government. In a moment, we'll report on the long history of voter skepticism.
We begin with the man who oversaw this survey, Andrew Kohut.
Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center): We are at one of the all-time low points in the percentage of people saying you can trust government all or most of the time. I think we just have 22 percent saying that. The last time that number was this low was in 1993-1994, a time politically, perhaps, not too different from now.
INSKEEP: A time when the country was emerging from a recession, when there was a new Democratic president, when incidentally, he was pushing for health care reform. That's interesting.
Mr. KOHUT: All of those things. And also a time when the country was, as you said, coming out of a recession, struggling. And we know that there's a very close correspondence between trust in government and how well the country is seen as doing, and particularly how well it's doing economically. The other thing is when the Democrats take the White House, Republican reaction to government is rather severe.
Mr. KOHUT: More severe then among Democrats when a Republican president takes the White House.
INSKEEP: Why's that?
Mr. KOHUT: Well, I think because basically Republicans are the party of small government, and there's great fears that a Democratic president is going to be too activist. And we saw this as early as the spring of - late spring of 2009. Our trends, which had been showing more support for government, began to reverse themselves pretty early on in President Obama's administration.
INSKEEP: Is it possible that what has happened here over the last year is essentially that Republicans have won, or at least are winning, the rhetorical debate? They've managed to define the issues in a surprising way, given that they didn't have the White House, and more people are accepting their version of events.
Mr. KOHUT: They have certainly been more politically active than the Democrats. But the other thing is we can't forget that health care reform was the principal policy of the Obama administration, and that really raised the profile of government. When we asked people, and other polls asked people: Why do you object to health care reform - which a plurality of people said, the number one answer was we don't want that much government.
INSKEEP: And the objections to health care reform actually got stronger even as the bill was compromised and became less and less - according to the Democrats - intrusive.
Mr. KOHUT: Unchanged. I mean, really strong, intense opposition among many people. Granted, many people said I don't quite understand it. So there is some possibility that when we really see it, that the public will have a different point of view. But I think health care reform contributed in the latter part of last year - the second half of last year - to this growing concern about the power of government.
INSKEEP: Andrew Kohut, I want to pull back a little bit of the curtain here. We thought we were going to be talking to you about all this some weeks ago, and you looked at your survey results and decided you wanted to go out and do more work, more work after that, a series of surveys. I'd like to know if one of the reasons you went back and did so much surveying was that the initial results were so negative you weren't even sure they were right.
Mr. KOHUT: Well, we were concerned that we had done this in the middle of the health care reform controversy, and maybe we were getting kind of a misread on it. But we did two or three follow-up national surveys, and we found the same negative numbers.
We did see a little increase in the ratings for the Republican and Democratic congressional leadership, but very modest. It's still pretty negative. And this number of 25 percent having a favorable view of Congress is the lowest we've ever, ever obtained.
INSKEEP: What are the implications of that for the Democrats who are in majorities in both Houses now?
Mr. KOHUT: Trust in government is an issue that favors the Republicans, as we look forward to this midterm. When we look at independents who are frustrated with government, 66 percent say they're definitely going to vote. Overwhelmingly, they are disposed to vote Republican. Among the people who are not so critical of government, only 24 percent are disposed to definitely vote.
INSKEEP: Andrew Kohut, thanks very much.
Mr. KOHUT: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: He's president of the Pew Research Center.