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As the midterm elections get closer, Republicans are questioning the competence and trustworthiness of President Barack Obama. This is a theme that came into sharp focus during the immigration debate when House Republicans said they wouldn’t move forward because they didn’t trust the president to enforce the law. The botched launch of the Obamacare website did the president no favors. Now, Republicans are pouring concerns over Ebola and the Secret Service into the same mold.
The pundits lobbed their opposing views at each other on Fox News Sunday. Brit Hume said the level of people saying the government is incompetent is higher than ever. Juan Williams shot back that the public always thinks the government is incompetent.
George Will entered the fray to note that the country has most to fear from "excessive faith in government." Will skewered Republicans for engaging in nation building overseas and Democrats for their efforts to cure social ills at home. Then Will made an interesting historical observation.
"The last time there was a sustained surge of confidence in government's competence was under (President) Ronald Reagan," Will said.
Will is correct that public trust in government rose and then held steady under Reagan. But he errs in ignoring Bill Clinton’s two terms in office, when the public’s trust in government also rose sharply.
In the following chart, the Pew Research Center averaged the results of a number of surveys since 1958 that probed the public’s trust in government. (The political scientists we reached said the words "confidence" and "trust" are largely synonymous in this context.)
Source: Pew Research Center, Public trust in government: 1958-2013
Trust in government fluctuated during both the Reagan and Clinton presidencies, but under Reagan, trust rose by 11 percentage points -- from 33 percent to 44 percent. In the Clinton years, trust rose over 20 percentage points -- from 21 percent to 44 percent, according to data from American National Election Studies.
As for Will’s use of the word "surge," gains in trust were steeper during Clinton’s two terms, but he started from a much lower point than Reagan.
What lies behind the numbers
The consensus among the political scientists we contacted is that trust in government tracks closely with the economy.
"The growth in trust we observe under Reagan and Clinton coincides with economic expansions," said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College.
In his forthcoming book, Why Washington Won’t Work: Polarization, Political Trust, and the Governing Crisis, Vanderbilt University political scientist Marc Hetherington analyzed how party affiliation changes the survey results for trust in government.
"Republicans in the electorate only seem to trust the government when Republicans are in office," Hetherington said. "Democrats trust government about the same amount over time. Republicans fluctuate a lot."
Hetherington sent us this chart that tracks party affiliation and trust in government by who was president.
Theda Skocpol, a political scientist at Harvard University, is skeptical about how much these polls actually reveal about American attitudes. Skocpol said these general opinions mask considerable nuances.
"Americans express opposition or doubt when asked about government overall," Skocpol said. "But they usually like all the specifics (of programs) by wide margins."
Skocpol gave the example of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the current Ebola scare might have taken a toll on the agency’s ranking, last year it stood at the top of the public’s list. According to Gallup, 60 percent of the people said the CDC was doing an excellent or good job.
George Will said the last time there was a "sustained surge" in confidence in government was under Reagan. While trust did rise and generally hold level in the Reagan years, it also had a steady and larger increase under Clinton.
However you slice the numbers, it is clear that the American public had a "sustained surge of confidence" during Clinton's presidency.
And Clinton, obviously, was president more recently than Reagan.
We rate Will’s claim False.
Fox News Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014
Pew Research Center, Public trust in government: 1958-2013, Oct. 18, 2013
American National Election Studies, Trust the federal government: 1958-2008
Gallup, Trust in government, September, 2014
CNN, Trust in government at all-time low, Aug. 8, 2014
Gallup, Americans Sour on IRS, Rate CDC and FBI Most Positively, May 23, 2013
Email interview, Brendan Nyhan, professor of government, Dartmouth College, Oct. 5, 2014
Email interview, Marc Hetherington, political scientist, Vanderbilt University, Oct. 5, 2014
Email interview, Theda Skocpol, political scientist, Harvard University, Oct. 5, 2014
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