March 3, 2011

Fewer Are Angry at Government, But Discontent Remains High

Republicans, Tea Party Supporters More Mellow

Overview

The public remains deeply frustrated with the federal government, but fewer Americans say they are angry at government than did so last fall. Overall, the percentage saying they are angry with the federal government has fallen from 23% last September to 14% today, with much of the decline coming among Republicans and Tea Party supporters.

While anger at government has subsided, the public expresses no greater taste for political compromise today than it did last fall. As political leaders head into a tough political debate over the budget, 54% say they like elected officials who stick to their positions, while 40% prefer officials who make compromises with people they disagree with. This is virtually identical to the balance of opinion among registered voters last September.

By roughly two-to-one (63% vs. 32%), more Republicans say they like elected officials who stick to their positions rather than those who make compromises. About half of independents (53%) prefer politicians who stick to their positions compared with 41% who like elected officials who make compromises with people they disagree with. Democrats are evenly divided – 48% like elected officials who stick to their positions, 46% like those who compromise.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Feb. 22-Mar. 1 among 1,504 adults, finds a modest recovery in public trust in government from historic lows last year. Yet even with this uptick, the general mood remains overwhelmingly negative.

Just 29% say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time, up from 22% last March. About seven-in-ten (69%) say they trust the government only some of the time or never, compared with 76% a year ago.

The proportion of Republicans saying they can trust the government always or most of the time has increased from 13% to 24% over the past year; opinions among Democrats are unchanged over this period, at 34%.

The public continues to express negative views of Congress, as well as Republican and Democratic congressional leaders. Just 34% say they have a favorable opinion of Congress, up slightly from 26% a year ago; a majority (57%) has an unfavorable view. Comparable percentages say they approve of the job performance of Republican (36%) and Democratic (33%) congressional leaders.

By contrast, Barack Obama’s job ratings remain positive. Currently, 51% approve of Barack Obama’s job performance while 39% disapprove. That is little changed from early February, but Obama’s ratings have shown significant improvement since last fall, when about as many approved as disapproved.

The survey finds a continuing rise in support for same-sex marriage since 2009. Currently, 45% say they favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally while 46% are opposed. In Pew Research surveys conducted in 2010, 42% favored and 48% opposed gay marriage and in 2009, just 37% backed same-sex marriage while 54% were opposed.

Over the same period, there has been movement toward a liberal position on abortion. In 2009, for the first time in many years, the public was evenly divided over whether abortion should be legal or illegal in all or most cases. But support for legal abortion has recovered and now stands at about the same level as in 2008 (55% then, 54% today).

Independents have become more supportive of both gay marriage and legal abortion since 2009. Roughly half of independents (51%) now favor same-sex marriage, up from 37% in 2009. And 58% of independents say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 47% in Pew Research Center surveys two years ago.

The public’s overall views of labor unions have changed little through the lengthy stalemate between Wisconsin’s governor and the state’s public employee unions over collective bargaining rights. About half (47%) say they have a favorable opinion of labor unions compared with 39% who have an unfavorable opinion. In early February, 45% expressed a favorable opinion of unions and 41% said they had an unfavorable view. However, liberal Democrats and people in union households are more likely to say they have a very favorable opinion of labor unions than they were just weeks ago. (For more on public attitudes toward labor unions, see Pew Research’s Feb. 17 report. For more on views of the showdown in Wisconsin between the governor and public employee unions, see this report, released Feb. 28.)