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Public Souring on Obama's Era of Big Government

By Nina Easton, Time - December 4, 2009

For President Obama, the era of big Government is not over. "It is true, we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or generate long-term growth," he proclaimed in his first budget to Congress. But "at this particular moment, government must lead the way." A partial Obama to-do list, only some of it done, includes a remake of the health care and energy sectors; a $787 billion stimulus bill aimed, so far, mostly at public employment; takeovers of General Motors and Chrysler; a "pay czar" to cut salaries at bailed-out banks and a proposed new consumer-protection agency to police the nation's lenders.

When Obama took office, conventional wisdom held that the American people, jarred by a financial crisis they were routinely told was "the worst since the Great Depression," would race into the protective arms of Washington. After all, the Federal Government had given us the New Deal in the worst of times and a patchwork of economic safety nets since. The idea is that we instinctively turn to its beneficent hand to ease the pain of hurricanes, floods, tornadoes--and recessions.

Yet in today's hard economic times, something startling began showing up in public-opinion polls: fewer people than in the past wanted Washington to step in. In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, only 23% of respondents said they trust the government "always or most of the time"--the smallest proportion in 12 years. The percentage of voters who think government should "do more to solve problems and meet the needs of people" has dropped 5 points since Obama's first weeks in office, while that of those who think government should leave more things "to businesses" rose 8 points. The shift is especially noticeable among independent voters, a small plurality of whom wanted government to "do more" after Obama took office; now--by a margin of 17--they think government does "too much."

"Audacity" was a catchy campaign theme, but it's less attractive as a governing principle. The all-important swing voters who decide elections are nervous about dramatic expansions of the Federal Government--even and especially in this time of economic distress. As it turns out, this financial crisis was not the call to bold action that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said shouldn't "go to waste." Quite the opposite: if he doesn't want his presidency to be held hostage by a string of nail-biter votes in Congress, Obama needs to recognize that he overestimated the public's appetite for taxpayer-funded solutions.

"What people understand that policymakers in Washington don't is that there's a real belief out there that all government does is waste money," says Doug Schoen, the pollster who helped President Clinton move into the era of "Big Government is over" after the Democrats' 1994 midterm-election drubbing. "Taxes go up. Debt goes up. People think, 'All you're going to do is waste my money and put me in a dire situation.'" Karlyn Bowman, a public-opinion researcher at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, advances the counterintuitive notion that Americans may be happier with Big Government in good times than in bad.

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