The financial meltdown and unpopular bailouts have contributed to near-record levels of distrust in the federal government: Only about 1 in 5 Americans believes he or she can trust the government most of the time. Older Americans are just as skeptical when it comes to Washington, but they have much greater faith in one arm of the government.
On a warm Friday night in Florida, Mary and Larry Grieger are holding court — shuffleboard court — in St. Petersburg, where they retired about 10 years ago after 30 years in Michigan.
"We've gotten this little window," Mary Grieger says. "We just seem to be at the perfect age, where we're healthy enough to do stuff, and we can afford to not work."
Maybe that extra free time helps explain why people over 65 consistently vote at much higher levels than young people do. Grieger says that doesn't mean they trust the people they vote for.
"Even if you elected somebody because you really liked him, it's who's around him," she says. "And the really good-looking ones, the ones you think are squeaky clean, turn out to be some of the dirtiest ones."
Two and half hours north, in Ocala, Fla., billboards beckon seniors into retirement communities with fitness clubs and golf courses. "Active living" is the sales pitch here. Retiree John Hauge complains it's the government that's gotten too active.
"I have little or no trust in the government," Hauge says. "We've lost sight of what our Constitution stands for, and I think we should backtrack and take a look at that, see what our founding fathers wanted, not what we interpret them to say."
A new poll by the Pew Research Center found similar distrust among all Americans over the age of 30. But seniors are the one age group that didn't favor Barack Obama in the last election. John McCain carried this conservative Florida district by 14 points.
Retiree Sylvia Joram says she was initially leery of Obama, because of what she calls "the Muslim part." But she is a Democrat and she ended up voting for Obama enthusiastically.
"That Christmas, I got my husband a plate with Obama on it," she said. "And a lot of my neighbors aren't too happy when they come over. But it sits very proudly in our curio cabinet"
Joram is part of a group of seniors who get together regularly to discuss current events at On Top of the World, an Ocala community that's home to some 8,000 retirees. Even those who support the president here have a deep distrust of the federal government.
"Most of the people who seek public office begin with the best intentions," Art Woodstone says. "And when they discover that there's a power they can hold onto, they suddenly change."
Eva Scranton agrees.
"They just want to be re-elected, it seems like, and don't look at the country's best interest," she says.
One branch of the government these seniors do feel good about is the one that sends them a check every month. In the Pew Survey, 69 percent of seniors expressed a positive view of the Social Security Administration. Although that's down from previous years, retirees like Linda and Steve Short give Social Security much higher ratings than do people under 65.
"When I reached the age, it was like a eureka moment. I've got this! Oh my goodness. And it's been great," Linda Short says.
"I personally think the people in the Social Security Administration do a superb job," her husband says. "They get the job done for millions of people, and they get it done right, every month."
Linda Short adds: "Maybe I wouldn't have saved that kind of money. It never occurred to me I'd be 73 years old one day."
Sylvia and John Joram say they feel fortunate to have Social Security and Medicare. John Joram says even those who are most critical of the federal government change their tune when it comes to those two programs.
"You see all these tea party people now, they'll be right there to take the Social Security and Medicare," he says. "I haven't heard anybody turn it down. They're right there in line."
No matter how much these seniors like the government programs with the most direct impact on their lives, that doesn't translate to a broader trust. As a consequence, many are skeptical of the government’s ability to offer similar security to their children.