WASHINGTON — If President Barack Obama got anything indisputably right at his news conference this week, it was this: The American people don't trust the federal government.
That's a major reason he's having such a hard time selling his plan to overhaul the nation's health care. Even if they like Obama himself, people just don't think that the government can handle anything big, let alone something as personal to them as their health care.
"I understand that people are feeling uncertain about this. They feel anxious, partly because we've just become so cynical about what government can accomplish that people's attitudes are, you know, even though I don't like this devil, at least I know it, and I like that more than the devil I don't know," the president said.
"So folks are skeptical. And that is entirely legitimate, because they haven't seen a lot of laws coming out of Washington lately that helped them."
They did trust Uncle Sam once.
In the 1930s, they looked to the government for help in the Great Depression, and Franklin D. Roosevelt used that trust to drive through the New Deal program, creating Social Security and a host of government programs.
In the 1950s, they trusted Dwight Eisenhower when he wanted to build the Interstate Highway System.
In the early 1960s, they did, too, and Lyndon Johnson used it to create Medicare and to enact civil rights legislation and the rest of his Great Society agenda.
No longer, however.
From Vietnam through the Watergate scandal, the Iraq war and the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, Americans have soured on the very thought that the government can do things well. That makes it immensely difficult to convince them — or their members of Congress — to go along with anything that even looks like a government takeover of health care.
"President Obama is right," said Brian Darling, the director of Senate relations for The Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group. "There is a lack of trust in government right now, and the average American does not trust the federal government to make heath care decisions on their behalf."
In a recent survey for CBS and The New York Times, just one out five Americans said that they trusted the government to do the right thing all or most of the time, rivaling the lowest marks since the question was first asked in 1958.
Skepticism about the government is one thing, bred into the American DNA since the Revolution and the Constitution. It now borders on cynicism, however, and creates even more than the usual brake on government, especially for a Democratic president.
"It's a very big problem," said William Galston, who served as a top aide in the Bill Clinton White House and watched that president's plans for health care also run into a wall of skepticism about the federal government.
"I had expected that some of the enthusiasm surrounding Obama's election and swearing in would rub off, at least temporarily, on government. To my surprise, that has not happened"
One reason, of course, is that the mistrust is deeply ingrained now and not easily or quickly overcome. Recent events and the promise of big government help made things worse, however.
Americans have watched with frustration as their federal government has committed nearly $800 billion to stimulate the economy yet they've seen unemployment continue to rise. They've also watched their government send billions to Wall Street only to see financial firms give their executives big bonuses.
"Voters are in sacrifice overload," pollster John Zogby said. "They're dishing out trillions already and aren't seeing the return."
So what can Obama do?
Several analysts think that he should try for less than a complete overhaul that would extend coverage to 50 million uninsured and create a new government health insurance plan to compete with private insurers.
A more incremental approach, they said, would allow time for the economy to recover, perhaps permit trust in government to build, and then give Obama more room to seek more.
"This is one-sixth of the U.S. economy. It's gigantic. It's clearly stretching Congress and the executive branch to the limit," Galston said.
"There are a lot of people inside the White House now who vividly remember what it's like to insist on everything and end up with nothing," he said in a reference to the failed Clinton health care proposal in 1993. "I can't imagine they'd repeat that. Then the question is, if they can't get over the bar they've set, can they lower it and convince the American people this is a significant accomplishment."
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