Sucking Sound

Governing in an era of extreme anti-government rhetoric.

In retrospect, when you have to organize a rally called "Government Doesn't Suck," it's a strong indication you've lost the public debate.

That's what happened the week before the November midterm elections, when the good folks at the social networking site GovLoop felt the need to mount a counterattack to the relentless drumbeat of criticism that the government and the people who work for it endured during the seemingly endless electoral season of discontent. "With anti-government sentiments at record highs, we feel your pain," the rally's organizers said. "We know you don't suck, you know you don't suck, so let's let the world in on this little secret."

Unfortunately for those on the pro-government side of the fence, the secret did not get out on election night. Republicans, riding a wave of anti-government sentiment, swept to control of the House of Representatives and made significant gains in the Senate. Exit polls showed voters' dis-illusionment with government was one key reason. Fully 73 percent of voters described themselves as at least dissatisfied about the way the federal government is working, with 26 percent saying they were downright angry.

That was no surprise, really. Just days before the election, The Washington Post asked a cross-section of Americans for one-word descriptions of government, and heard terms like "self-achieving," "freedom- robbing," "misguided" and "spoiled." Even those responses that could be characterized as positive weren't exactly ringing endorsements of the bureaucracy: They included words like "necessary" and "working." ("Doesn't suck," indeed.)

The GOP lawmakers who now control the House vowed to respond to the anti-government mood by slashing federal salaries, freezing hiring and cutting spending across the board. That leaves it to the Obama administration to show that it actually can make government work. In a progress report on the administration's Accountable Government Initiative in early November, Jeffrey Zients, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said when it comes to making government more efficient, responsive and transparent, "we're putting points on the board." But the fans in the stands don't seem to be noticing-at least not yet.

Some Republicans, of course, secretly might hope that Americans don't actually expect them to deliver on their promises. The last time the GOP ran an effective anti- government campaign in 1994, its newly minted congressional leadership launched a 100-day effort to eliminate, privatize and consolidate agencies and Cabinet departments, slash employment, trim pay increases and scale back federal retirement benefits. But big government turned out to be very difficult to tame. It won't be any easier this time around.

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