Government may not be the problem now, but that doesn't mean people trust it.
During the Bush administration, the country absorbed three severe shocks to the system: the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the recent financial meltdown brought on by the collapse of the housing market. Each of those events provoked a massive response by the federal government.
It would be tempting to think that the one salutary effect of those responses is they would lead Americans to put more faith and trust in the government and its leaders. But unfortunately, that's not likely to happen.
Americans like a government that gets them out of messes, whether they result from the actions of our enemies, the effects of natural disasters, or the mistakes of corporate leaders. But once the initial shock is over, they tend to go back to distrusting bureaucrats and bureaucracy. In February 2002, I addressed this phenomenon in an essay in Government Executive.
At that time, with the terrorist attacks fresh in everyone's mind, polls were showing that Americans had great faith in government institutions. But I noted that Bill Schneider, a polling specialist and senior political analyst at CNN, had pointed out that "it's not so much trust in government but hope in government that is triumphing." The "dirty little secret" of polling, Schneider said, is "people try to give the right answer" to questions asked by pollsters. After the terrorist attacks hit home, he said, the correct answer was an attitude he characterized as "defiant optimism." In the event of another large-scale terrorist attack, Schneider said, public support for government "could very quickly evaporate."
In fact, it didn't even take a terrorist attack to cause that evaporation. The heartbreaking failure of the Katrina response wiped out a large portion of the support for government that had built up since Sept. 11.
Now the financial crisis has once again brought with it the hope that Uncle Sam can ride to the rescue. As the crisis exploded with full force in late September and federal officials stepped in with a proposal for a massive government bailout, The Wall Street Journal emblazoned one edition with the headline, "The Week That Changed American Capitalism."
"The last 20 years saw people actually mouthing the idea that government should keep hands off," Richard Sylla, a financial historian at New York University, told the paper. "We had this free market ethos: Reagan's 'government isn't a solution, government is the problem.' Now people are saying, 'The market is the problem. The government is the solution.' "
That might be true for now, but history suggests the feeling won't last long. Americans' love-hate relationship with big government extends back more than 200 years. Don't expect it to end any time soon.