November 23, 2015

Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government

3. Views of government’s performance and role in specific areas

Role and performance - 1Amid a climate of deep distrust and frustration with government, the public’s ratings of the federal government’s performance in a range of areas stand out for being relatively positive. In 10 of the 13 areas tested in the survey, half or more say the federal government is doing a very good or somewhat good job.

Large majorities say the federal government is doing a very or somewhat good job responding to natural disasters (79%), setting fair and safe standards for workplaces (76%), keeping the country safe from terrorism (72%) and ensuring that food and medicine are safe (72%).

More also say the federal government is doing a good rather than a bad job protecting the environment (59% vs. 38%), ensuring access to health care (56% vs. 40%), maintaining roads, bridges and other infrastructure (52% vs. 46%) and ensuring access to high quality education (52% vs. 44%).

On the economy, evaluations are mixed: Slightly more say the federal government is doing a good (51%) than a bad (47%) job strengthening the economy. However, more emphatic ratings of government performance tilt negative: 22% say the federal government is doing a very bad job strengthening the economy, compared with just 9% who say they are doing a very good job.

The federal government receives low marks for its performance in two other key areas: managing the nation’s immigration system and helping people get out of poverty. Overall, 68% say that the government is doing either a very bad (38%) or somewhat bad (30%) job managing the nation’s immigration system; just 28% say it is doing a good job.

Ratings are nearly as negative when it comes to the job the government is doing to help people get out of poverty: 61% say the government is doing a bad job, compared with far fewer (36%) who say it is doing a good job.

Role and performance - 2The survey also asks people about the role the federal government should play in these 13 areas. Overwhelming majorities say the government should have a role – either major or minor – in all 13. But there are clear differences in opinions about the extent of government involvement across these issues.

Americans are nearly unanimous in favoring a role for the federal government in keeping the country safe from terrorism: 94% say it should play a major role, while 5% say it should play a minor role.

Overwhelming majorities of more than 90% also say the federal government should play a major or minor role in other areas, including responding to natural disasters (98%), protecting the environment (96%), managing the immigration system (96%) and strengthening the economy (95%). For each of these areas, seven-in-ten or more say the federal government should play a “major” role, with far fewer saying it should play a “minor” role.

Yet there is less support for the federal government to have a large role in other areas – notably ensuring access to health care, helping people get out of poverty and advancing space exploration. About six-in-ten (61%) say the government should have a major role in ensuring access to health care; 38% say it should have a minor role and 10% want it to have no role at all.

Fewer (55%) want the government to have a major role in helping ameliorate poverty, and only about half (47%) want the government to play a major role in advancing space exploration. About one-in-ten (9%) say the government should have no role in advancing space exploration.

Role and performance - 3On several issues, relatively high performance ratings correspond with broad majorities who say the government should play a major role in that same area. For example, 79% say the government is doing a good job responding to natural disasters and 88% say it should play a major role in this area. Keeping the country safe from terrorism and ensuring that food and medicine are safe are two other areas where large majorities say the government is doing well and should play a major role.

For most measures, however, performance ratings lag the share saying the government should play a major role. Majorities of about seven-in-ten or more want the government to have a major role in maintaining infrastructure (76%), protecting the environment (75%), strengthening the economy (74%), ensuring access to quality education (70%) and ensuring a basic income for those 65 and older (69%).

However, no more than about six-in-ten rate government performance positively in any of these areas (59% for protecting the environment). Only about half say the government is doing well in the other areas: infrastructure (52%), economy (51%), education (52%) and ensuring a basic income for older adults (48%).

The widest gap between public assessments of the federal government’s performance and role is seen on the issue of immigration. Just 28% say the federal government is doing a good job in managing the immigration system – more than twice as many (68%) say it is doing a bad job. Government involvement in immigration is widely seen as necessary. An 81% majority says the federal government should play a major role managing the nation’s immigration system.

Partisan gaps on performance and role of federal government

Role and performance - 4There are significant differences in how Republicans and Republican leaners and Democrats and Democratic leaners rate the performance and role of the federal government. On some key issues, Republicans offer more negative performance ratings and see less of a role for government than Democrats. But these differences do not extend across all issues, and there are notable areas of partisan consensus.

When it comes to the performance of the federal government, partisans hold opposing views of how the government is doing in strengthening the economy and ensuring access to health care.

Nearly three-quarters of Democrats (74%) say the government is doing a very or somewhat good job ensuring access to health care. By contrast, Republicans are much more negative: Just 40% say the government is doing a good job.

A similar pattern is seen on the economy. Most Democrats and Democratic leaners say the federal government is doing a good job strengthening the economy (68%), but just 34% of Republicans and Republican leaners agree.

On the issue of defense from terrorism, there is a 25-percentage-point gap between the performance ratings Republicans and Democrats give the government. Nevertheless, majorities in both parties say the government is doing a good job: Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, 85% say the government is doing a good job keeping the country safe from terrorism, compared with a smaller 60%-majority of Republicans and Republican leaners.

Though Republicans hold particularly negative views, neither party thinks the government is doing a good job managing the nation’s immigration system. Just 15% of Republicans and leaners say the federal government is doing a very or somewhat good job managing the immigration system, compared with 40% of Democrats and leaners.

On other issue areas, there are only modest differences between how Democrats and Republicans rate federal government performance. For example, Republicans and Democrats are about equally likely to say the federal government is doing a good job ensuring that food and medicine are safe (73% each), setting fair and safe workplace standards (77% of Republicans vs. 79% of Democrats) and responding to natural disasters (78% vs. 82%).

There also are modest differences on performance ratings for some issues areas where partisans likely hold different policy preferences. For example, similar percentages of Republicans and Republican leaners and Democrats and Democratic leaners say the government is doing a good job protecting the environment (62% of Republicans vs. 58% of Democrats) and ensuring access to quality education (54% vs.52%).

Role and performance - 5When it comes to the role of the federal government, there are large partisan differences in the share who think the federal government should play a “major role” across several high-profile issue areas, with Republicans more likely to see a limited role for government than Democrats. However, for all 13 areas tested, three-quarters or more of Republicans and Republican leaners say the federal government should have at least a minor role, with no more than 20% saying the federal government should play no role at all on any single issue.

Ensuring access to health care is the issue area with the largest partisan divide in the share saying the government should play a major role. Republicans and Republican leaners (34%) are 49 points less likely than Democrats and Democratic leaners (83%) to say the federal government should play a major role in this area. While just 34% of Republicans want government to play a major role, 45% say it should play a minor role; just 20% say it should play no role at all.

Helping people get out of poverty is another area where fewer than half of Republicans and leaners (36%) say the government should play a major role, compared with a far larger majority of Democrats and leaners (72%).

There are other large partisan differences over where the government should play a major role, on issues such as protecting the environment (31 points), ensuring access to quality education (29 points) and strengthening the economy (20 points); but on these issues, majorities of Republicans and Democrats alike see a major role for government, with the opinion gap reflecting how broadly the view is shared among the two groups.

There are several areas where Republicans and Democrats are unified in seeing a major role for the federal government. There is little to no disagreement between partisans that the federal government should play a major role keeping the country safe from terrorism, managing the immigration system and responding to natural disasters. Partisan opinion gaps also are relatively modest when it comes to the view that the government should play a major role keeping food and medicine safe and maintaining roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Republicans’ views of government role and performance

Role and performance - 6The widest gap among Republicans and Republican leaners in their views of government performance and role is seen on immigration. Just 15% of Republicans say the federal government is doing a good job managing the nation’s immigration system. Fully 85% say the government should play a major role in managing the nation’s immigration system.

A similar pattern is seen when it comes to keeping the country safe from terrorism, strengthening the economy and maintaining the country’s infrastructure. In all three areas, a sizable majority of Republicans say the government should play a major role, but far fewer say the government is currently doing a good job. For example, while 64% say the government should play a major role in strengthening the economy, just 34% give it good marks in this area.

The pattern is much different when it comes to the federal government helping people get out of poverty and ensuring access to health care. On these issues, low performance ratings correspond with small percentages of Republicans seeing a major role for the federal government. For example, just 30% of Republicans and leaners think the government is doing a good job helping people get out of poverty and a similarly small share (36%) think the government should play a major role in this area. In only one area, setting workplace standards, do a greater share of Republicans rate the government’s performance highly (77%) than say it should play a major role (54%).

Democratic views of government role and performance

Role and performance - 7As with Republicans, Democratic views of government role and performance differ the most over the issue of immigration. Just four-in-ten Democrats and leaners say the federal government is doing a good job managing the nation’s immigration system, among the lowest performance ratings Democrats give the federal government in a policy area. Yet a wide 80% majority sees a major role for government in this area.

This pattern generally holds across the issues where Democratic ratings of government performance are relatively low or mixed. For example, fewer than half (42%) say the government is doing a good job helping people get out of poverty, but 72% say the government should play a major role in this area. Ensuring access to quality education and maintaining infrastructure are two other areas where Democratic evaluations of government performance are tepid but support for government playing a major role remains high.

Among Democrats, advancing space exploration stands out as the one issue for which there is not majority support for a major government role. Democratic performance ratings on this issue fall roughly in the middle of the 13 areas tested (58% say the federal government doing a good job); nonetheless, 50% say the government should play a major role, 22 points less than say the same about any other issue, and on par with Republican views.

Republican ideological divides on government role and performance

Among Republicans and Republican leaners, those who describe themselves as conservative are more critical of government performance than those who describe their political views as moderate or liberal.

Role and performance - 8The largest ideological gap among Republicans is over the job the government is doing strengthening the economy. Overall, 46% of moderate and liberal Republicans and Republican leaners say the government is doing a good job strengthening the economy. By contrast, conservative Republicans and leaners are 20 points less likely to hold this view (26%).

Conservative Republicans are less likely than moderates to say the government is doing a good job on a range of other issues, including keeping the country safe from terrorism (15 points), helping people get out of poverty (9 points) and managing the nation’s immigration system (8 points). But on poverty and immigration, fewer than half of both groups say the government is doing a good job.

There are no issues for which moderate and liberal Republicans are more critical of government performance than conservatives. However, there are several issues for which there are hardly any ideological gaps among Republicans, including protecting the environment and ensuring safe food and medicine.

Role and performance - 9With regard to views of the federal government’s role, across many issues, conservatives are less likely than moderates and liberals to say the government should play a major role. Though these ideological gaps over the government’s role do not always correspond to the differences in performance ratings

Nearly three-quarters (74%) of moderate and liberal Republicans say the federal government should play a major role protecting the environment, compared with about half (48%) of conservative Republicans and leaners. This 26-point gap is the widest seen across issues among Republicans, despite the absence of an ideological gap within the GOP over the government’s performance on the issue.

Ensuring access to quality education is another area where most moderate and liberal Republicans say the government should play a major role (66%), but no more than about half (49%) of conservatives say the same.

Conservative Republicans are at least 10 points less likely than liberals and moderates to see a major role for government helping people get out of poverty (31% vs. 45% among liberals, moderates) and ensuring access to health care (29% vs. 42%).

Managing the nation’s immigration system is the one issue for which a somewhat larger share of conservative Republicans and leaners (88%) than of moderates and liberals (81%) say the government should play a major – though this view is widely held among both groups.

Democratic ideological divides on government role and performance

Role and performance - 10Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, liberals are more critical of government performance than moderates and conservatives on some issues central to the party, such as protecting the environment, ensuring access to education and helping people get out of poverty. On other key issues, such as strengthening the economy and managing immigration, there are no significant divides between the two groups.

Half of liberal Democrats and leaners (50%) say the federal government is doing a good job protecting the environment, compared with a majority (63%) of conservative and moderates who say the government is doing a good job.

Similarly, 46% of liberals rate the government positively for the job it is doing ensuring access to quality education, compared with a larger share of conservatives and moderates (56%) who think the government is doing a good job.

Among Democrats and leaners, neither group thinks the federal government is doing a particularly good job helping people get out of poverty, but liberals are somewhat more negative (36% good job) than are conservatives and moderates (45% good job).

Role and performance - 11Seeing a major role for government across most issue areas is a defining view among Democrats and one that is held widely both by liberals and by conservatives and moderates in the party.

On ensuring access to health care and helping people get out of poverty, liberal Democrats and leaners (93%) are more likely than moderates and conservatives (77%) to say the federal government should play a major role; however, large majorities of both groups want major government involvement in these areas.

Across most other issues included in the survey, similar majorities of both liberal Democrats and conservatives and moderates say the federal government should play a major role. For example, 91% of liberals and 87% of conservatives and moderates say the federal government should play a major role in protecting the environment.

Advancing space exploration is one area where smaller shares of Democrats and leaners say the government should play a major role: 54% of liberals say this, as do 48% of conservatives and moderates.