2014-10-22 14:11:45 UTC
Nation?s Confidence Ebbs at a Steady Drip
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON ? In taking office during two overseas wars and the Great
Recession, President Obama set out to restore society?s frayed faith in
its public institutions, saying that the question was not whether
government was too big or small, ?but whether it works.? Six years
later, Americans seem more dubious than ever that it really does.
With every passing week or month, it seems, some government agency or
another has had a misstep or has been caught up in scandals that have
deeply eroded public confidence. The Internal Revenue Service targets
political groups, the Border Patrol is overwhelmed by children illegally
crossing the Rio Grande, the Department of Veterans Affairs covers up
poor service, and the Secret Service fails to guard the president and
his White House.
Now public esteem for the long-respected Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention has plummeted with the arrival of Ebola on American shores. A
new CBS News poll found that only 37 percent of Americans thought the
centers were doing a good job, down from 60 percent last year. In fact,
of nine agencies tested, seven that were judged highly by a majority of
Americans last year have now fallen below 50 percent. Only one, the
Federal Bureau of Investigation, was rated well by a majority, and that
by just 51 percent.
The disenchantment stretches beyond individual agencies to the nation?s
leadership. Heading into the last election that will directly influence
his presidency, Mr. Obama remains at or near his lowest approval
ratings, with his handling of various matters called into question by
many voters. The only solace for him is that Congress, gripped by
gridlock, is held in even lower regard, with its approval rating in
?As Bill Clinton used to say, most Americans start out thinking the
federal government couldn?t run a two-car funeral,? said Bruce Reed, who
was a top White House official under Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama. ?Now
they worry that one of the two cars should have been recalled and the
other can?t go anywhere because Congress is still fighting over whether
to fix the road.?
To be sure, it remains debatable whether government really is more
dysfunctional than in the past. During war and depression, during the
civil rights movement or the Watergate scandal or Hurricane Katrina,
institutions struggled to meet public needs. But today?s disillusionment
has been turbocharged by the relentless pace of the modern news media,
the unforgiving glare of social media and the calculating efforts of
And it has come to shape the national debate leading to the midterm
congressional elections to be held in less than two weeks. Republicans
are trying to capitalize on the sour mood to argue that Mr. Obama and
his party have proved that they cannot be trusted to govern, a case
bolstered by continuing foreign policy crises in places like Syria and
Ukraine. Democrats accuse the opposition of mindless obstructionism,
deliberately sabotaging government, or at least tearing down belief in
it, out of ideological fervor and political ambition.
?There?s a sense that things simply don?t work in Washington, and
Congress, in particular, seems to be completely gridlocked,? Mr. Obama
told donors in Chicago on Monday night. ?And so all of this adds
together to a sense on the part of folks that the institutions they rely
on to apply common-sense decisions and to look out for working families
across the country, that those institutions aren?t working the way
they?re supposed to.?
The broader trend precedes Mr. Obama and extends beyond politics, but
has not improved as the president once hoped. Polling by Gallup shows
that since June 2009, in the heyday of the new Obama presidency, public
confidence in virtually every major institution of American life has
fallen, including organized religion, the military, the Supreme Court,
public schools, newspapers, Congress, television news, the police, the
presidency, the medical system, the criminal justice system and small
The only institutions that Gallup tested that showed slight improvement
from June 2009 to June 2014 were banks, organized labor, big business
and health maintenance organizations. Even so, all four of them had the
confidence of just roughly a quarter of the population or less.
David Axelrod, a longtime adviser to Mr. Obama, attributed the doubts
about public institutions in large part to a political and news media
culture that has gone well beyond healthy skepticism and scrutiny, all
the more so in an election season.
?Look, I think cynicism is a marketable asset these days, and you see it
very clearly in this Ebola story,? Mr. Axelrod said. ?There?s an impetus
to create fear and then market it, exploit it. And that?s true on the
part of the media, and that?s true on the part of the politicians.?
Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, a
liberal research organization, said Democrats were at a strategic
disadvantage in arguments over efficacy of government. ?Conservatives
have every interest to attack things government does because they don?t
want government to do things,? she said. ?Democrats don?t have an
interest in attacking everything government does because they want
government to work.?
Republicans call that a convenient excuse for a president who has turned
out not to be up to the task of running a complicated and vast
organization. Before his 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama had
little history of managing anything larger than a Senate office. To his
critics, the breakdowns in various agencies are the natural result of
that inexperience, a conclusion that really began taking hold with the
botched rollout of his own health care program last year.
?That ultimately may be the most damaging critique,? said Lanhee Chen, a
scholar at Stanford University?s Hoover Institution who was Mitt
Romney?s chief policy adviser in the 2012 presidential campaign against
Mr. Obama. ?I?ve heard it come from both the right and the left. People
don?t feel that he?s a competent manager of government.?
To the extent that election forecasts are to be believed, Republicans
seem to have gotten the better end of that argument. By most accounts,
they will ride dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama to keep the House and
quite possibly take control of the Senate.
Yet there is a paradox in that, because no matter who wins the upper
chamber, voters seem poised to return more than 90 percent of incumbents
in both parties to a Congress they say they loathe. Expressing
disapproval is fashionable, but Americans still rely on the institutions
they disapprove of. A Pew Research Center poll showed that despite low
marks for the C.D.C., 54 percent of Americans express confidence in the
government to prevent a major outbreak of Ebola in the United States.
Tom Davis, a Republican former congressman from Virginia, said both
parties had contributed to the toxic environment, as had an obsessive
news media. Every element in the system is rooting for failure. In
January, Mr. Davis will publish ?The Partisan Divide,? a book on
polarization in Washington written with Martin Frost, a Democratic
former congressman from Texas, and Richard E. Cohen, a former National
?Part of it is just the whole atmosphere in Washington ? the gotcha
mentality; we?re just going to stick it to you,? Mr. Davis said, adding,
?We focus on what?s not going well because our political system rewards
that sort of thing.?