Trust in government up dramatically, polls show

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have caused a stunning reversal in public attitudes about government and the people who work for it, new surveys show.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted late last week showed that 64 percent of Americans said they trusted "the government in Washington to do what is right" just about always or most of the time. That's up from only 30 percent in April, the last time the news organizations asked the question. The percentage of people who said they trusted government only some of the time or not at all dropped from 69 percent in April to 36 percent last week.

In a CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll conducted Sept. 14 and 15, 88 percent of Americans said they had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the U.S. government to protect its citizens from future attacks. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted Sept. 19 and 20 found that 73 percent of respondents were "absolutely confident" or "pretty confident" in the United States' ability to handle the problem of terrorism.

"These figures are sort of pre-Vietnam, pre-Watergate-era levels," said Paul Light, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution and senior adviser to its Presidential Appointee Initiative. "It shows the effect of the crisis in galvanizing public support for government."

A week before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Presidential Appointee Initiative released the results of a poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates showing that less than one-third of respondents said they trusted the federal government most of the time or always. Light said similar studies conducted in recent days for the organization show the same dramatic shift toward greater confidence in government that was reflected in the Post-ABC News poll.

"This is probably the greatest 'Rally 'round the flag' effect since Pearl Harbor," Light said.

While both the political leaders of the Bush administration and executive branch employees have gained respect from of Americans in recent weeks, Light said preliminary results of the most recent Presidential Appointee Initiative survey show that ratings of other institutions, such as Congress and the news media, are not rising nearly as quickly.

"Americans feel very reassured they have a federal government, so they feel more favorably toward federal employees," Light said.

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