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Majority in U.S. Still Say Government Doing Too Much

Economy Survey
September 17, 2012

But fewer Americans now say government has too much power

by Frank Newport

PRINCETON, NJ — A majority of Americans (54%) continue to believe the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses, although that is down from the record high of 61% earlier this summer. About four in 10 Americans (39%) say the government should do more to solve the nation’s problems.

Trend: Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country's problems. Which comes closer to your own view?

Track the 2012 race and compare it to past elections >

Only a few times in Gallup’s 20-year history of asking this question has a higher percentage of Americans said the government should do more to solve the nation’s problems than said the government is doing too much. Two of these were in the fall of 1992 and again in early 1993, as Bill Clinton ran for and took office as president. Another was in October 2001, just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and at a time when Americans were especially supportive of government and its efforts to help the nation recover from the attacks and retaliate against those who were responsible.Americans have been most likely to say the government was attempting to do too much during the middle years of the Clinton administration, and in recent years during the Obama administration.

These data were collected as part of Gallup’s annual Governance survey, conducted Sept. 6-9, which overlapped the end of the Democratic convention. Other Gallup measures from this poll, including satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S., were more positive this year than previously, suggesting that the convention may have made at least temporary changes in Americans’ perceptions.

Major Partisan Divide on Appropriate Role of Government

The appropriate role of government in addressing the nation’s problems is one of the most divisive issues in this year’s presidential election. President Barack Obama tends to support the idea that government should do more to address the country’s problems, while Mitt Romney generally takes the opposite view.

It is thus no surprise to find large partisan differences in Americans’ views on the appropriate role of government. Two-thirds of Democrats think government should do more, while an even larger percentage of Republicans say government is doing too much that should be left to individuals and businesses. More than six in 10 independents agree that the government is doing too much.

Trend: Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country's problems. Which comes closer to your own view? By party ID

Fewer Say Government Has Too Much Power

A separate question in the Sept. 6-9 poll asked Americans to characterize the scope of government power. Americans are now basically split between those who say the federal government has too much power and those who say it has either the right amount of or too little power. This marks a change from the last two years; 57% last year and 59% in 2010 said the government has too much power.

Trend: Do you think the federal government today has too much power, has about the right amount of power, or has too little power?

Gallup first asked this question in September 2002, and found a majority of Americans saying the government had about the right amount of power — no doubt a legacy of the strong support the government and government institutions received after the 9/11 terrorist attacks of the previous year. By September 2005, however, these views had flipped, and more Americans said the government had too much power than felt its power was about right — and this has been the case each year since.

Partisans’ views on the government’s power are related to which party is in power. Republicans have been much more likely to agree that government has too much power since 2009, under a Democratic president, while they were comparatively less likely to say the government had too much power from 2002 through 2008, under a Republican president.

Trend by Party ID: Do you think the federal government today has too much power, has about the right amount of power, or has too little power?

The fact that Democrats for most of the Bush administration were more likely than Republicans to say the government had too much power probably reflected Democrats’ negative views on government power in the Bush years in terms of fighting terrorism, the Patriot Act, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Once Obama took office, however, these partisan views changed, and Republicans’ concern about government power overtook Democrats’. This partly reflects Republicans’ views on the role of government spending and government power in domestic and economic affairs.

Bottom Line

Americans continue to say the government is attempting to do too much that should be left to individuals and businesses, and about half say the government has too much power, while the rest say that its power is about right or that it has too little power. These views have moderated somewhat compared with prior surveys, most likely as a result of the apparently successful Democratic convention, which resulted in changes in a number of Gallup trends.

Republicans are much more likely to say the government is doing too much and has too much power than are Democrats, underscoring one of the most meaningful partisan and ideological divides facing the country today — and one that will continue to. play out in the presidential campaign this fall.

Track every angle of the presidential race on Gallup.com’s Election 2012 page.

 

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