May 14, 2008

Federal Government’s Favorable Ratings Slump

State and Local Still Viewed Positively

Summary of Findings

Americans continue to hold their local and state governments in fairly high esteem, but positive views of the federal government are at their lowest point in at least a decade. Only 37% of people say they hold a favorable view of the federal government, while 58% express an unfavorable opinion. By comparison, 59% hold favorable views of their state governments and 63% hold favorable views of their local governments, figures that have been essentially stable since 2002.

Favorability ratings of the federal government in Washington have tumbled over the past year. As recently as January 2007, as many Americans offered a favorable (45%) as unfavorable (46%) opinion. In December 2002, favorable opinions of the federal government outnumbered unfavorable opinions by more than two-to-one (64% vs. 27%).

Ratings of the federal government are tracking Americans’ low opinions of the president and Congress, as well as their overall frustration with the state of the nation. George W. Bush’s approval rating has reached an all-time low of 27%, and Pew’s March survey found just 22% expressing satisfaction with the way things are going in the country, while 72% were dissatisfied.

Asked whether most members of Congress should be re-elected, only 36% said yes in late February, and only 31% approved of the job Democratic leaders in Congress were doing when asked in January.

Partisanship also matters. A slim majority of Republicans (53%) view the federal government favorably, an opinion shared by just 34% of independents and 29% of Democrats. For all groups, opinion is down sharply from December 2002, when majorities of all three held favorable opinions of the federal government.

By contrast, political affiliation is less of a factor in ratings of state and local governments. Most Republicans (64%), Democrats (59%) and independents (57%) view their state governments favorably, figures that are largely unchanged from 2002 and 2005. Substantial majorities of all three partisan groups look favorably on their local governments as well, but Republicans are more favorable (73%) than either Democrats (62%) or independents (61%).

The U.S. Military

The military continues to get high marks from a large majority of Americans. More than eight-in-ten (84%) offer very or somewhat favorable opinions of the military, up six points from July 2007. Positive ratings of the military have not fallen below 75% since 1990. Positive views of the military reached 94% in March 1991, shortly after the Persian Gulf War.

Currently, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to offer favorable views of the military, and conservatives and moderates are more likely than liberals to offer positive ratings. There is virtually no difference in opinion by gender.

Supreme Court Viewed Favorably

The Supreme Court, now in its third term under Chief Justice John Roberts, is viewed favorably by most Americans: 65% hold very or somewhat favorable opinions of the court, while 25% express an unfavorable opinion. In July 2007, 57% had a positive view of the court while 29% expressed a negative opinion.

Republicans, in particular, express a favorable opinion of the Court. Eight-in-ten Republicans view have a very or somewhat favorable opinion of the Supreme Court, compared with 64% of Democrats and 60% of independents.

The News Media

Most Americans (56%) have an unfavorable opinion of the news media, while just 40% express a favorable view. Positive opinions of the news media have declined since March 2007; at that time, 49% expressed an unfavorable view while 45% had a favorable opinion.

Women hold more favorable views of the press than do men, and Democrats hold more favorable views than either Republicans or independents. Conservatives are much more negative in their assessments of the press than are moderates or liberals.

Business Corporations

Americans are divided in their opinions of business corporations. About half (47%) view corporations favorably, while nearly as many (45%) view them negatively. Positive ratings of corporations have declined 10 points since January 2007 (57%). Opinions about business corporations have fluctuated substantially in recent years; favorable ratings have been as high as 73% in August 1999 and as low as 45% in October 2005.

In the current poll, men express more positive views of business corporations than do women, and those with more education are more positive about corporations than are those with less education. Republicans are notably more positive than are Democrats or independents.