Before Recent Crisis, Public Wary of Active Federal Gov't.

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Americans have become less accepting of a government role in promoting morality

PRINCETON, NJ -- An early September Gallup Poll showed that Americans continue to believe the government is doing "too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses," rather than preferring an expanded government role to deal with the country's problems.

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These results are based on Gallup's annual Governance poll, conducted Sept. 8-11 this year, and show 53% believing the government is doing too many things that individuals and businesses should be doing, a slight increase from prior years. These data are helpful in understanding the public-opinion environment in which the federal government's massive financial bailout plan is being played out.

It is too early yet to measure the public's reaction to that plan, the details of which the Bush administration and Congress are still working out. However, a USA Today/Gallup poll last week found a majority of Americans in favor of increased regulation of Wall Street, but divided on the specific proposal to loan up to $85 billion to troubled insurance conglomerate AIG. These two findings suggest that it is unclear whether the public will end up supporting the broader government intervention being considered this week.

Since 1992, Gallup has frequently asked Americans about their preferences for government's role in solving the nation's problems. Only twice during that time have more Americans expressed a preference for more government action rather than less -- in March 1993, during the early months of the Clinton presidency, and shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In this year's poll, as is typical, these preferences reflect the dominant political philosophies in the United States, with Republicans favoring a lesser role for the government in solving economic problems and Democrats a more active one. Independents also tend to favor a less active government role.

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In addition to asking about the government's role in solving economic problems, the poll also measures public preferences for what the government should do in regard to moral values. For the first time since 1993, Americans are evenly divided about what its role should be, with 48% saying it should promote traditional values, and 48% saying it should not favor any set of values. A majority had favored government's promoting traditional values from 1993-2006, before falling below that level in 2007. Last year, however, more Americans still favored government's promoting traditional values than not promoting them.

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Consistent with the respective party platforms, Republicans tend to favor a more active role for government in this area, while Democrats tend to believe the government should not be heavily involved. Independents' preferences are similar to those of Democrats.

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Implications

At least as of early September, it seemed like Americans' preferences more closely aligned with those of the Republican Party and John McCain in terms of what the government's role should be in solving the country's problems. However, since that time, the Republican presidential administration has intervened to develop a government program to help keep major financial institutions from collapsing under the weight of bad loans they have made in recent years. Initial public reaction to the events from early last week gives no strong indication on whether the public will support or oppose this more comprehensive proposal.

It's possible that the developments on Wall Street have shifted Americans' preferences on government intervention in the economy, though the direction of that shift is unclear. Both candidates have publicly endorsed the government's approach with some reservations, though McCain's position evolved from a more anti-regulation stance taken earlier in the week.

In some ways, the public's preferred government role in addressing economic problems in the wake of the Wall Street crisis may hold the key to the election outcome, since Americans are evenly divided as to what role the government should take with regard to morality.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,007 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 8-11, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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