Commentary Magazine


The Obama Era and the Collapse of Trust in Our Governing Institutions

According to a new survey by the Gallup organization:

Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the U.S. government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30%) and Congress (7%), and a six-year low for the presidency (29%). The presidency had the largest drop of the three branches this year, down seven percentage points from its previous rating of 36%.

These findings are a powerful indictment of the Obama presidency. But they are also part of a broader, extraordinary collapse of trust in government we’ve witnessed during the last 50 years.

After his landslide election in 1964, Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that Americans were living in “the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.”

Not exactly.

In fact, in less than four years America lurched from one of our more tranquil political periods to perhaps the most tumultuous since the Civil War. It happened in the blink of a historical eye, and it was driven by a complex set of factors, some the result of public policy and some not, but eventually the accretion heavily implicated government.

The public, especially young people, began to turn against the Vietnam War, to the point that President Johnson–battered and broken–decided not to run for reelection in 1968. Student protests spread, including onto college campuses. The nation was convulsed during the struggle over civil rights, while cities burned in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Robert Kennedy was murdered just two months later–and only five years after his brother was gunned down in Dallas. We experienced the killings at Kent State and the March on the Pentagon, Woodstock and Watergate, black power salutes in the Mexico City Olympics and violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Social pathologies–including crime, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, those on welfare, and more–worsened. And trust in government eroded at an extraordinary pace.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 1964, 76 percent of the public said they trusted government in Washington to do what was right most of the time or just about always. Just a decade later, the figure had fallen to 36 percent. By 1980, it dropped to 25 percent. In only a decade and a half, trust in government fell by 50 percentage points. We have never seen anything quite like it.

While public trust increased during the presidency of Ronald Reagan (to 47 percent), it dropped sharply following it. By the summer of 1994 public trust was at 17 percent, the lowest recorded. Those figures fluctuated during the Clinton second term, falling to 24 percent during the run-up to the Clinton impeachment trial but rising to more than 40 percent by the end of the Clinton presidency (June 2000). During George W. Bush’s first term, public trust in government spiked to more than 60 percent in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But by October 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, trust was again down to 17 percent.

This deep, durable unhappiness with government, and the longing of the public to once again believe in it, was something that Barack Obama brilliantly tapped into during his campaign for the presidency. The centerpiece of his run was not a particular policy; it was the promise to elevate our political debates and restore government to a respected place in our national life.

Yet here we are, in the sixth year of the Obama presidency, with the level of confidence in his presidency (29 percent) lower than at a comparable point for any of his predecessors and the ratings for the legislative and judicial branches at or near their lowest points to date.

I can’t say that these judgments are unwarranted. But I’m not convinced that such corrosive mistrust of our governing institutions is particularly good for our country, either. In a free nation, massive distrust of our governing institutions is a self-indictment of sorts. Government is, after all, the “offspring of our own choice,” in the words of George Washington, who added it has

a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty.

Today respect for government’s authority has never been lower, and the American people cannot be happy with this state of affairs or with themselves. In the wake of the Obama era, where expectations were raised to such dizzying heights, only to collapse into ruins, the public will be understandably wary about the next person promising to heal the planet and repair the world, who claims the power to halt the rise of the ocean tides, who says that this time will be different than all the rest and declares that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” (To remind yourself of the stratospheric expectations set by Mr. Obama, I’d urge you to watch this short clip of Obama in 2008.)

Given where we are, it seems to me that the proper response from a Republican candidate is not to celebrate in this distrust but to help correct it; to candidly and with some sophistication explain why it’s happened and to show how a modern conservative governing agenda (perhaps something along these lines) can help restore trust in a responsible, limited government. With the Obama presidency lying in ashes, and with liberalism itself terribly damaged, an opportunity exists. Who on the right will seize it?

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