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Biden’s Dilemma, Part 7: Federal Government Breakdowns Are on the Rise

The latest in a series of infographics on Americans’ views of government reform heading into the 2024 election. 

President Biden heads toward the 2024 presidential campaign with the federal government’s job rating in decline, support for a smaller government increasing, and the demand for major government reform at a 30-year high. This series of charts and graphs explores the current landscape when it comes to Americans’ views of government reform.

Like other presidents before him, Joe Biden’s job ratings are heavily dependent on how many visible government failures with high levels of public interest occur on his watch. A recent increase in such breakdowns per year strongly suggests presidential action is needed to repair government. The breakdown trend has accelerated since the early 1980s, and continues to climb ever higher.

The inventory of government breakdowns reflected in the chart below is built on a review of news stories about government failures published between 1986 and 2022 and listed in the “Pew News Interest Index.” To be listed, a breakdown had to meet three tests: high visibility in the news, high levels of public interest in response, and evidence of federal government mismanagement or policy failure.

Most breakdowns involve a combination of fragile policy design, resource and staff shortages, antiquated technology, training deficits, technology glitches, bad luck, political interference and bureaucratic sabotage, all of which relate to the erosion of what the Niskanen Center calls state capacity

Breakdowns are almost always a product of pressure, neglect and overconfidence. Instead of blaming presidents, legislators, contractors, lobbyists and grifters for government failure, Congress and the president should address their general reluctance to move government repairs to the top of the legislative agenda.

The next generation of major reform may yet emerge from Biden’s White House chief of staff, Jeffrey Zients. Having served in several senior leadership posts in the executive branch, Zients will face little White House resistance should he embrace needed repairs at the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Aviation Administration, Food and Drug Administration, and other broken agencies.

The trend lines and analyses presented in this series come from stand-alone random-sample surveys conducted by Lake Research Partners, Maguire Research Services, the Pew Research Center, SSRS, and the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center. Occasional data points were also harvested from search engines managed by survey aggregators such as, the Roper Center’s iPOLL database, and publicly available Pew Research Center surveys dating back to 1997. All survey findings were based on random-sample surveys of at least 1,000 respondents interviewed by cell phone and landline, with estimated error rates of 3% to 4% at a 95% confidence level.