Trust us, says government. Fat chance, says America

Looks like Washington is heading for another round of budget gridlock and partisan griping, this time over the size of the nation’s debt limit. And that is likely to mean a further erosion of Americans’ already-dismal faith in the people who run the federal government.

Americans’ confidence in officials’ ability to handle domestic issues reached the lowest point in recent history last month. It’s a trend that shows few signs of any serious reversal anytime soon, particularly not with Republicans and Democrats in Congress, as well as President Barack Obama, primed for another down-to-the-wire duel over government money. The government is expected to exhaust its borrowing capacity Oct. 17, and there’s no accord in sight on how to proceed.

Chances are the upcoming battle will add to a string of unsettling developments that have sent trust plunging in recent years. The war in Iraq didn’t go as advertised. Government agencies engaged in domestic surveillance. The Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative political groups. People questioned why the Obama administration wanted military action against the Syrian regime.

Most of all, the economy collapsed and is still regarded by most people as fragile. “Economic conditions, as perceived by the public, underlie everything,” said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.

Gallup’s Sept. 5-8 survey found 42 percent of Americans had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in government’s capability to deal with domestic matters, a percentage point below 2011’s record low.

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center found more than half thought the federal government threatened their rights and freedoms, the first time since the question was asked in 1995 that a majority felt that way.

The distrust has implications for government policy, as the disdain for all things Washington has hardened the outlook of those who question Washington’s credibility and effectiveness.

As recently as the late 1990s, Republicans who wanted President Bill Clinton impeached were willing to work with Democrats on policy matters, and vice versa, said Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People the Press.

Today, though, “there’s a starker distrust of the other side,” he said. Those attitudes color controversies, so that news that embarrasses one side seems fresh confirmation that the bad guys can’t be trusted.

The 2010 health care law is a prime example. In the past, said Dimock, most people accepted controversial policies and ideas a few years after they were implemented – Medicare, Social Security and so on.

But three and a half years after the health care law was enacted, Democrats and Republicans are still at odds, and the standoff shows no signs of de-escalating. A National Journal/Congressional Connection poll in September found 77 percent of Republicans wanted Obamacare repealed, while 72 percent of Democrats want it retained.

Democrats urge patience. Republicans urge blowing up the law, and the Republican-run House of Representatives has tried more than 40 times to dilute or delete Obamacare. Each effort has died in the Democratic-run Senate.

The decline in the public’s trust has accelerated in recent years. In the late 1950s, despite an economic recession, three out of four people expressed trust in government. That trust began eroding as the Vietnam War dragged on and it tumbled further in the early 1970s during the Watergate crisis. The stagnant, inflation-riddled economy of the late 1970s sent the numbers even lower.

Americans did express trust in their government after the 2001 terrorist attacks. A month after the attacks, Gallup found 77 percent were confident again about government.

But the war in Iraq dragged it down again, and the financial collapse sent it plummeting.

Today, it’s at dismal levels, spurred by a string of events that raised new questions about whether government has become too bloated, inert and intrusive. Those ideas have been magnified by the louder-than-ever echo chamber of cable television news, the Internet and social media, where naysayers can quickly find friends who share their zeal for railing against government.

Most influential has been the tea party movement. It grew out of CNBC’s Rick Santelli’s 2009 call for a “Chicago Tea Party” to protest Obama administration policies. The movement gained momentum, and was instrumental in helping Republicans gain a House majority in the 2010 elections.

It’s now helping lead the fight to repeal and replace the health care law, which Tea Party Express Chairman Amy Kremer calls “the so-called Affordable Care Act.”

Traditionally, Democrats have more trust than Republicans in government, but even they are growing more pessimistic about Washington. Gallup found that in 2009, the year Obama took office, three in four were confident Washington could handle domestic problems. In September, that figure had dropped to 58 percent.

They’ve been sobered partly by some disappointment in Obama, but also by budgetary constraints on government.

“Even if you’re a fan of government, you don’t see the opportunities for new programs. You don’t see how they’re sustainable,” said John Fortier, director of the Democracy Project at the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center. “They see no room for anything new and exciting.”

The path to restoring trust lies partly with an improved economy and partly with lawmakers who show a willingness to compromise. There is some hope: An effort to overhaul immigration laws has won some bipartisan backing, and the economy has been growing, at least on paper, for four years.

But it’s going to be tough, said Fortier. “It’s going to be hard when one of the parties more clearly defines itself as being against government.”