Politics & Government

Public distrust of government could hobble Obama

President Elect Obama in Chicago.
President Elect Obama in Chicago. Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Hold on to those clever caricatures of Barack Obama as Franklin D. Roosevelt for a bit. This election could end up more 1992 than 1932.

Despite media-fed expectations of an FDR-like flood of legislation that would help Obama transform the country and its politics, there's also a real chance that he could face a Bill Clinton-like morass that would stymie some of his boldest promises and lead to a backlash against his party and him.

The key reason, two former Clinton White House insiders warn, is that Americans don't trust the government, even if they want it to do things.

"For Democrats, the question is whether this moment is more like 1932, the dawn of the New Deal era . . . or more like 1992, prelude to a loss of the Congress to Republican control," said Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck, two former advisers in the Clinton White House.

In a new report, the two argued Tuesday that Obama and the Democrats who will run the next Congress shouldn't confuse election results with public trust, which is at an all-time low.

Just 17 percent of Americans thought in October that the government will do the right thing all or most of the time, they noted, the lowest since pollsters started asking the question in 1958.

"The decline in trust has the potential to drown Obama's agenda in a sea of skepticism," said Jim Kessler, a vice president of Third Way, a centrist-minded group that sponsored the report from Galston and Kamarck.

The two analysts cautioned fellow Democrats against seeing the 2008 Democratic victories as the same road map to governing success that voters gave Roosevelt in 1932 or Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Each of those elections was a Democratic landslide that ushered in a dramatic wave of legislation and expansion of the federal government.

In 1932, there was no polling and thus no concrete evidence, but given the staggering unemployment it's likely that the people looked readily to government for help. Roosevelt and a Democratic-led Congress responded with regulation of Wall Street, jobs programs and Social Security.

In 1964, Johnson and the Democrats enjoyed not only a landslide election but also the broad confidence of the people; 76 percent of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing all or most of the time. Johnson responded with the civil rights legislation and Medicare.

"For those in the Democratic Party urging that we change everything all at once, they don't have the same kind of public that Lyndon Johnson had in 1964," Kamarck said.

The two know from firsthand experience about the distance between winning an election and governing. Both worked in the White House, where Clinton saw his 1992 campaign promise of universal health care fall apart, unable to withstand a barrage of criticism of it as an inept government boondoggle.

At the time of Clinton's election, only 29 percent of Americans trusted the government.

"This is something we wish Bill Clinton had thought more about when he was elected," Kamarck said at a breakfast Tuesday. "All the warning signs were missed . . . in spite of what appeared to be an election mandate, low levels of trust did limit action."

They urged Obama and the Democrats who control Congress to work to rebuild trust in government as a prelude to enacting broad changes.

First, they said, Obama must demonstrate concern for ordinary Americans. Second, he must show that the government is honest. Third, he must show Americans that the government is competent, by telling people what he wants to do and then doing it.

"Saying `Mission Accomplished' is a problem," Galston said in a reference to President George W. Bush's premature declaration of victory in Iraq, "if the mission was not accomplished."


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