America’s problems are multifaceted and complex. But from the results of polls and anecdotal evidence, it is clear the nation is in crisis and the federal government is most often cited as the problem.
Gallup’s annual Mood of the Nation poll, conducted in the first week of the new year, gave a snapshot of how American citizens view the government, its efficiency, and its leadership. The results were staggering. Sixty-five percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with how the American governmental system works. The research firm has been measuring this sentiment since 2001, and this year’s result was the highest percentage on record; dissatisfaction has increased five points from the previous high of 64 percent, which came in 2012, and the trend line for this measure has shown “remarkable change over time,” according to Gallup. Even in 2002, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the rate of dissatisfaction was lower, with just one in four individuals expressing disapproval with the U.S. system of government.
Unsurprisingly, “mentions of the government as the top problem remain higher than they were prior to the partial government shutdown in October,” Gallup noted. The government’s perceived inefficiency outstripped the economy, healthcare, low job creation, national defense, and the federal budget as the greatest problem with the United States.
“[President Barack] Obama and the elected representatives in Congress have faced a tough audience in the American public in recent years, with the majority dissatisfied with the performance of government and concerned about its size and power,” explained Gallup’s Justin McCarthy. “This year will be no different as the president prepares to speak to the nation next week. And even a slight majority of those in his own party are generally dissatisfied with how government is working.”
But what the anecdotal data fails to explain is why Americans feel such dissatisfaction, although it is easy to find the origins of the country’s disapproval of their leaders and create a narrative to explain why Americans feel the greatest problem with the United States is its government. It is fair to say that the numerous problems plaguing the country — slow economic growth, lagging job creation, and the faltering healthcare reform — all shape how Americans view the government. But there is an important distinction to make. The nation does not feel that its leaders have been hit with insurmountable obstacles that they are trying to solve, but instead that Congress and the president appear to have become sidetracked by partisan battles that have taken on more importance than the myriad of issues at hand.
Indeed, it is disappointing that a nation as great as the United States could not agree on practical ways to keep the government functioning. Now, the United States Congress is more polarized than at any other time since the late 19th century.
As the Brookings Institute’s Brandon Rottinghaus described in a recent paper, “the United States currently experiencing a hyper-polarized political environment.” His research dealt primarily with how the president of the United States leads public opinion and the effect that leadership has on Congressional voting behavior. In his opinion, the president’s goal is not to “persuade cross-pressured members of Congress or persuade opposition partisans, but rather to hold copartisan members of Congress in the fold.” Rottinghaus wrote that there is evidence that presidential leadership has evolved into an effort to win partisan support as the “political polarization has cemented in Congress.”
While he notes that the president’s ability to leverage his popularity into support in Congress has not entirely died, that ability is waning as partisanship in Congress grows, suggesting new “partisan tactics” are necessary. Part of the reason politics are now so partisan is because the political process is significantly more open to the masses than it was several generations ago. For example, C-SPAN’s cameras give the nation a full view of the political process, while the explosion of online media has resulted in a wealth of political commentary.
All this is to say that American politicians are finding it necessary to subscribe to an “us versus them” mentality. The results of this type of thinking were on full display in October when the federal government shut down for 16 day because of Congress’s inability to agree on spending. Ideally, a divided government benefits from the counterbalances the political parties provide; one party will restrain the other party’s impulse to ideologically overreach in terms of policy. But if neither party will negotiate, the results are ineffective governance.
The federal government began its first partial shutdown in 17 years on October 1 after Congress failed overcome a partisan disagreement over a temporary spending bill that would have funded operations for the beginning of the new fiscal year. Similarly, in the ongoing budget deals and debt ceiling crises the evidence of dysfunctional government is on full display. The inflexibility of the conservative populist lawmakers and their commitment to fiscal restraint, as well as the commitment of liberal lawmakers to funding the nation’s social welfare programs, indicates that crisis may be the new political normal and dissatisfaction with that possibility was reflected in the results of Gallup’s poll.
The emphasis on political dissatisfaction shown in the results does not mean that Americans are not still concerned about the economy. Gross domestic product may be growing and the labor market may be healing, but it is clear that the recovery to date has been far from healthy, and Gallup’s data suggest that the economy has a long way to go before people believe that the recession is truly behind them. The percentage of Americans who believe they are worse off is up from a post-crisis low of 34 percent, which occurred at the end of 2012. The percentage of Americans who believe they are better off is down slightly from a post-crisis high of 39 percent, which occurred in the middle of 2013.
Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index is like a barometer for the atmosphere of economic malaise that has settled over the United States. The post-crisis climate has been generally stormy with high unemployment, low growth, and (depending on whom you ask) a chance of deflation. At no point since Gallup began tracking economic confidence in 2008 has the index broken into positive territory, indicating that at no point since the crisis have more Americans been optimistic about the economy than pessimistic.
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