NYT: Nation’s Confidence Ebbs

 

Nation’s Confidence Ebbs at a Steady Drip

By Peter Baker, October 21 2014.

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 single digits.

“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 partisans.

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 business.

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 Journal columnist.

“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.”

See Peter Baker, Nation’s Confidence Ebbs at a Steady Drip, The New York Times, October 21 2014.

(Emphasis added)