By Liz Sidoti
AP national political writer
Washington — The 19th century American statesman Henry Clay called government “the great trust.” But most Americans today have little faith in their government’s ability to deal with the nation’s problems.
For Americans, public confidence in government is at one of the lowest points in a half century, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center. Nearly eight in 10 people in the country say they don’t trust the federal government and have little faith it can solve America’s ills, the survey found.
The survey illustrates the ominous situation President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party face as they struggle to maintain their comfortable congressional majorities in this fall’s elections. Congressional elections held midway through a president’s term are typically tough for the party in power. Add a toxic environment like this and many incumbent Democrats could be out of work.
This anti-government feeling has driven the so-called Tea Party movement, reflected in fierce protests this past week.
“The government’s been lying to people for years,” said Cindy Wanto, 57, a registered Democrat from Pennsylvania who joined several thousand for a rally in Washington on April 15 — the tax filing deadline. “Politicians make promises to get elected, and when they get elected, they don’t follow through. There’s too much government in my business.”
Majorities in the survey call Washington too big and too powerful and say it’s interfering too much in state and local matters. The public is split over whether the government should be responsible for dealing with critical problems or scaled back to reduce its power, presumably in favor of personal responsibility.
“Trust in government rarely gets this low,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan center that conducted the survey. “Some of it’s backlash against Obama. But there are a lot of other things going on.”
The survey found Obama’s policies were partly to blame for a rise in distrustful, anti-government views. In his first year in office, the president orchestrated a government takeover of Detroit automakers, secured a $787 billion stimulus package and pushed to overhaul the health care system.
But the poll also identified a combination of factors that contributed to the electorate’s hostility: the recession that Obama inherited from President George W. Bush; a dispirited public; and anger with Congress and politicians of all political leanings.
The poll was based on four surveys done from March 11 to April 11 on landline and cell phones. The largest survey, of 2,500 adults, has a margin of sampling error of 2.5 percentage points; the others, of about 1,000 adults each, have a margin of sampling error of 4 percentage points.
In the short term, the deepening distrust is politically troubling for Obama and Democrats. Analysts say out-of-power Republicans could well benefit from the bitterness toward Washington come November, even though voters blame them, too, for partisan gridlock that hinders progress.
Democrats and Republicans both accept responsibility and fault the other party for the electorate’s lack of confidence.
But Matthew Dowd, a top strategist on Bush’s re-election campaign who now shuns the GOP label, said Republicans and Democrats are missing the mark.
“What the country wants is a community solution to the problems but not necessarily a federal government solution,” he said.