Politics

Americans OK With Short-Term Government Growth

by Frank Newport

Americans more worried about government spending than government power

PRINCETON, NJ -- Although a majority of 53% of Americans approve of the expansion of the U.S. government to help fix the current economic crisis, most of that group would like to see the government's role reduced once the crisis is over. Additionally, a majority of Americans say President Obama's proposals for government action to fix the economy involve too much government spending.

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A recent USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted March 27-29, probed Americans' views of the government's role in addressing the nation's financial crisis. The responses underscore the conclusion that Americans have conflicting attitudes about the whole process.

After having been asked about their views of the government's expanded role in the economy, those who said they approved were asked if they wanted it to be a permanent expansion, or if the role of government should be reduced once the crisis is over.

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Only 13% of Americans both approve of the government's expansion to address the crisis and want that expansion to be permanent. On the other end of the spectrum, 44% of Americans disagree with the expansion to begin with. That leaves another group of about 4 out of 10 Americans who favor the expansion but want it to be cut back once the crisis is resolved.

There also appears to be a difference in the way in which Americans view an expansion of government "power" and government "spending": the former appears to be more palatable than the latter.

A random half-sample of those interviewed in the poll were asked "Do you think President Obama's proposals to address the economic problems in the country call for too big an expansion of government power, the right amount, or not a big enough expansion of government power?"

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Just 40% say it is too big an expansion. (That's similar to the 44% who say they disapprove of the overall expansion of the government in the question reviewed above.) In contrast, 46% of Americans say the expansion of government power is the right amount, while another 10% say it is not big enough.

On the other hand, when a different half-sample was asked virtually the same question but with the word "spending" substituted for "power" ("Do you think President Obama's proposals to address the economic problems in the country call for too much government spending, the right amount, or not enough spending?"), the responses were considerably more negative. Fifty-five percent say Obama's proposals involve too much government spending.

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The differences in responses to these questions are predictably partisan. Democrats generally are much more likely to approve of the expansion of government, and to say that the increase in government power and government spending is needed or is not enough. Republicans generally are opposed to government expansion.

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Implications

Americans traditionally have been worried about too much government power, and in recent years -- including 2009 -- have been consistently more likely to say government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses than to say government should do more to solve the country's problems.

Obama signs stimulus
Vice President Joe Biden stands behind President Barack Obama as he signs the $787 billion economic stimulus bill at the Museum of Nature and Science in central Denver Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009. (AP Photo/Darin McGregor, Pool)

Still, as the questions reviewed here show, a majority of Americans are apparently willing to sanction the sharp expansion of government involvement in the nation's economy as necessary to fix the major financial problems facing the country. But most of these approve of only a short-term expansion. The overwhelming majority of Americans either don't approve of the government expansion to begin with or want it curtailed once the crisis passes. Americans also are worried about the increase in government spending. (And other Gallup questions have shown that there is concern about the impact of the current policies on the nation's federal deficit.)

All of this could have significant political implications. Once the financial crisis begins to pass and the economy is on a better footing, there appears to be the potential for a backlash against the increased size, power, and spending of the government that has occurred since President Obama took office. Republican leaders are already criticizing the expanded government role in the economy.

There is little doubt that this will become a significant thrust of the GOP's efforts to increase its share of House and Senate seats in the 2010 elections. The data suggest that Americans have a latent distrust of a permanent expansion of the federal government's role, meaning that Republican candidates may have fertile soil in which to plant their seeds of opposition in the coming years if the larger role of government stays in place once the economy improves.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,007 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 27-29, 2009. 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.

For results based on the 532 national adults in the Form A half-sample and 475 national adults in the Form B half-sample, the maximum margins of sampling error are ±5 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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