ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We begin this hour with trust, or the lack of it. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, trust in government is near an all-time low. For the next two weeks, NPR will explore this trust deficit, its origins and what it means for our politics and our people. Mistrust certainly didn't start with the current administration, but it has gotten far worse since Barack Obama won the White House.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports on what this has cost President Obama, and how he hopes to change it.

MARA LIASSON: For a Democratic administration that wants to do big things with government, the severe erosion of trust in government is a real problem, and President Obama knows it.

President BARACK OBAMA: We have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now. We face a deficit of trust, deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years.

LIASSON: What the president calls a deficit of trust has been impossible for him to surmount and it's undermining support for him and his policies, says Andy Kohut, whose Pew Center has just completed a big survey on this issue.

Mr. ANDY KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center): No other factor loomed as large in preventing Americans from embracing the proposals of the Congress and Barack Obama than views about government. A president who wants to use government to solve problems when a public says, we don't trust the government, we want less government, is a problem.

LIASSON: For example, in Kohut's poll, 84 percent of those opposed to the president's new health care law said the reason was too much government. And in November of 2008, 43 percent said they wanted a smaller government with fewer services. That number has now grown to 50 percent.

Bill Galston served in the Clinton White House when it was grappling with similar feelings about big government. He says the continued loss of trust in government over the past year is striking, given the wave of trust, at least personal trust, that swept Barack Obama into office.

Mr. BILL GALSTON (Former Policy Adviser, Clinton Administration): I think the president assumed that the confidence that the American people had invested in him as a leader would somehow spill over to his party and to the instruments of government as a whole. And if that's what he assumed, he was wrong from the start. The American people had not suspended their mistrust of government.

For example, candidate Obama issued a large promissory note about an end to partisan bickering and a return to something closer to civility in the relations between the political parties.

LIASSON: And when he wasn't able to redeem that promise, attitudes towards government got even more negative. But the president's top strategist says that's not all Mr. Obama's fault. David Axelrod accuses the Republicans of trying to delegitimize government.

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (Political Consultant): In Chicago there was an old tradition of throwing a brick through your own campaign office window and then calling a press conference to say that you'd been attacked. I think it's a little bit the same with the Republicans. They meet, they decide we're not going to give the president any bipartisan support and then they call a press conference to accuse him of not governing in a bipartisan way. And that, I think, grates on people.

LIASSON: Andy Kohut agrees that the current deficit of trust is not all about President Obama. He says it's due to a lot of factors.

Mr. KOHUT: Trust in government declines when national conditions are bad. National conditions are bad, the economy is bad. So that's one factor. Second factor, when there's a Democratic president, the Republicans become much more mistrusting of government than do Democrats when there is a Republican president.

LIASSON: So, the lack of trust in government may not be the president's fault, but it certainly is his problem. The people angriest about the government favor Republicans. And in every survey they say they are more likely to vote in November than Democrats.

What can President Obama do about this? Alexrod says in the long run, the best thing is to solve the country's problems and convince the public the solutions are working.

Mr. AXELROD: There is a fundamental sense of jaundice on the part of everyday people who feel like they're meeting their responsibilities and all around them they see irresponsibility. Well, the best way to deal with that is to behave responsibly, to govern responsibly, to be straightforward, to be transparent. That is the goal. And that is the standard by which we want to hold ourselves. It's hard to do, given the nature of politics and government, but that should be our North Star.

LIASSON: President Obama himself is bothered by the amount of disdain for government among politicians and the press. He's been thinking about ways he might address this, such a series of presidential speeches. Of course, the president's conservative critics would argue Mr. Obama might be able to increase trust in government if his government wasn't trying to do so much.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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