Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan: Soul Mates?
Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, discusses the latest polling on the public’s discontent with government.
Public distrust in government is at its lowest in years – comparable to the Vietnam and Watergate eras – but for all the purported anger toward President Barack Obama, the current mood mirrors where Ronald Reagan stood after his first year in office.
“The American public is becoming more critical of government at a time when they see someone to the left of them take office,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for The People and The Press, whose recent study shows historic lows in public support for government and its ability to regulate the economy.
Kohut discussed the Pew Center’s findings during the opening session of the second annual Bertelsmann Foundation conference on the financial crisis.
People’s government distrust has turned to anger in the wake of the passage of the health care bill, Kohut said. They think last year’s stimulus bill and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) did nothing to boost jobs. And while there’s equal anger toward Wall Street, people don’t want the government to be the one to curtail its power.
Go back nearly 30 years, though, and there was a similar feeling from the other side of the ideological spectrum. Like Obama, Reagan was elected amid discontent toward a president of the opposite party, yet Reagan’s actions during his first year in office created widespread worry.
“People were concerned that they were going to cut government too much,” Kohut said, noting that unemployment also loomed large at that time. Yet: “With [Reagan’s] ability to declare “Morning in America”, he brought many more people to his point of view about downsizing government.”
It would take two more years for the public to come around to that point of view, in mid- to late 1983. Will Obama’s legacy move in the same direction? The signs indicate that such might be the case, Kohut said.
A significant factor connecting Obama to Reagan is that, despite widespread negative views about government and the economy during their first years in office, the public still had an underlying confidence in their president.
“We still have majorities saying they like [Obama], and they still have some confidence that he can make change,” Kohut said.
The recent polling on Congress, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to offer hope for either party.
“Both parties get low ratings,” he noted. And while distrust in government has an iconic American trait throughout its history, especially in times of economic downturn, today’s numbers are more startling.
In the wake of recessions in the ’90s and around 2000, people reporting anger toward government numbered around 10 to 12 percent. Today, that rate stands at 21 to 22 percent. “That group of people are providing a lot of the energy in the current political environment,” Kohut said, and nearly one third said they see government policies as a personal threat.
While such hostility favors Republicans going into the 2010 elections (66 percent of independent voters now favor Republican candidates), Democrats can take some solace in the fact that the rise of the tea-party movement won’t necessarily support the Republicans.
“People say the tea party better represents them than the Republican party,” Kohut said, revealing a “unity problem” in the party.
These widespread negative feelings aren’t necessarily logical, he added, because while 56 percent of people hold an undiminished support for more control over financial institutions, a similar majority feels that government is not up to the job of asserting that control.
“People are conflicted,” he said. “They don’t like government, and they don’t like business.” And it extends across the board to media, the military, church powers – “it’s a declining trust and support for the powers that be.”
The technology sector, however, stands out as an exception to the increased distrust. From all the downward trends, the only “up” arrow points to technology corporations.
“These companies are having a positive impact in the United States even when the economy is in a downturn,” Kohut said. “The American public is always of the point of view that we’ll come up with a gadget that will fix things.”
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