WASHINGTON — Already wary of the federal government, Americans have grown even more critical, less trusting and even fearful of Uncle Sam since President Barack Obama took office, according to an exhaustive new study being released Monday.
The in-depth poll found Americans not only rejecting the idea of an activist government, but a growing number urging that its power be curtailed. The findings reinforce the anti-big government message of tea party rallies and suggest anew that incumbents, particularly Democrats, face a strong headwind in this fall's elections for control of Congress.
"By almost every conceivable measure, Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days," said the report from the non-partisan Pew Research Center.
The center said its new survey found "a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government - a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials."
A key finding: Americans oppose greater government control over the economy by a margin of 51-40 percent.
That's a reversal from just a year ago, when they supported greater government control by a margin of 54-37 percent.
There's one big exception, however. A solid majority, 61 percent, do want greater government regulation of the financial industry, something that Obama and the Democratic majorities in Congress are pushing now.
The March 11-21 poll of 2,505 Americans was compared to earlier surveys in 1997, 1998 and 2000. While those Clinton-era polls also found mistrust of government, Pew noted, the anti-government sentiment had dropped from earlier in the 1990s, and the desire for government activism was holding steady.
Now, the trend is the opposite. Just 22 percent say they trust the government almost always or most of the time, among the lowest in a half century of polling.
At the same time, a broad swath of Americans, 56 percent, say they are frustrated with the government, the same as a decade ago.
But 21 percent say they are angry about the government, double the 10 percent who felt that way in February 2000. And only 19 percent say they are content with the federal government, down sharply from 33 percent in February 2000.
"Frustration with government is nothing new," said Pew. "Growing anger is."
It's not just anger. A growing number of Americans fear their government.
The poll found that 30 percent of Americans believe the federal government is a "major threat" to their personal freedom, up sharply from 18 percent in a comparable ABC-Washington Post poll in 2003.
The most threatened? 50 percent of Republican-leaning independents said their government threatens their freedom, followed by 43 percent of Republicans, 21 percent of Democratic-leaning independents, and 18 percent of Democrats.
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