STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
The president's speech today addresses one of the few areas in which Americans say they want more government action. People tell pollsters they want tougher rules on Wall Street. At the same time, nearly six in 10 Americans think the government has gone too far in regulating businesses and interfering with the economy.
A: conservatives. They see poll numbers as a sign of public support and a chance for political gain.
NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA: The Pew poll puts overall trust in Washington and the federal government at 22 percent. Break it down to Republicans only, and it drops all the way down to 12 percent.
Comedian Dennis Miller captured this in an appearance on Fox News when he listed the only things he thinks Washington is good at.
DENNIS MILLER: I want Barack Obama to roll the eggs out on the lawn at Easter. I want him to save the bird's neck at Thanksgiving. I want him to light the tree at Christmas and fund the military. And the rest of it - I just don't trust the government. I'm not paranoid. I'm not a militia guy. I'm not a militia guy. I just don't think they know what they're doing.
GONYEA: So conservatives don't trust the government. It sounds like a dog bites man story.
MICHAEL DIMOCK: To some extent, I think it is.
GONYEA: That's Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center. But, Dimock says, there is a man bites dog part of this story as well. It's that over time Republicans are actually no more distrusting of government than Democrats are.
DIMOCK: That is one of the surprising findings. Even though Republicans are more ideologically conservative about the role of government, they can feel very positive about government when there's a Republican president.
GONYEA: And past polling shows that Republicans exhibited extremely high trust in government under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush - far higher, in fact, than Democrats felt during much of Bill Clinton's presidency and today with President Obama.
It's the activist approach to government by the Obama White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress that stirs up the current level of conservative animosity. And that's helping to energize Republicans looking to make big gains in this year's midterm elections.
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GONYEA: On Saturday, the conservative group Young Americans for Freedom hosted a race in Washington's Rock Creek Park.
JORDAN MARKS: Today, we have the Freedom 5k, a little exercise, especially after all that health care debate. It's good to actually have a little bit of health in your life.
GONYEA: Jordan Marks is the group's executive director. On the lack of trust on the part of young conservatives, he says it's understandable.
MARKS: In America, you're told you go to school, you get an education, you get a degree, and then you're going to have a job waiting for you. And this great American society is going to be there and you're going to have this wonderful life.
GONYEA: But Marks says suddenly that promise has disappeared.
Pew researchers say the economy is a big factor driving down government trust for everyone. A huge part of that was the sub prime mortgage crisis. And for conservatives, the government bailouts that started in the Bush administration and continued under President Obama only increased frustration and distrust.
Conservatives have long argued that the financial industry needed more freedom and fewer regulations to thrive. Democrats say that hands-off approach is what caused the crisis. But conservatives disagree with that assessment.
John Samples is with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
JOHN SAMPLES: Part of the trusting problem, I think, it also goes to the fact that you didn't leave them alone, in the sense that you had laissez-faire up until they went bankrupt, essentially, and then the taxpayer was brought in as the investor of last resort.
GONYEA: Samples then adds...
SAMPLES: Certainly for conservatives it's an embarrassing situation, but also a situation that pushes you toward saying that the government did something wrong, including President Bush.
GONYEA: The Pew poll also contains another number related to distrust of government by conservatives: 21 percent of those surveyed say they are not just frustrated with government, but actually angry. That's double what it was during the last Democratic administration.
Such anger has been on display at Tea Party events and at other rallies across the country over the past year. And it's that kind of intensity that is energizing Republicans this election year.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.
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