Watch CBSN Live

Trust in Government Nears All-Time Low

The latest CBS News/New York Times Poll finds Americans cynical about and dissatisfied with government.

At 75 percent, the percentage that disapproves of Congress now matches the highest level recorded in this poll; only in October 2008 and March 1992 was disapproval so high. The two parties themselves have also fallen in public estimation -- more than half the public views the Democratic Party and the Republican Party unfavorably.

And while President Obama fares better than Congress in the poll, his job approval rating is now 46 percent, matching his lowest approval rating ever.

The public's dissatisfaction extends to government in general as well. The poll found seven in ten Americans feel they don't have much say in what the government does (a record high), and nearly four in five think government is run by a few big interests, while just 18 percent think it is run for the benefit of all Americans.

Trust in government has fallen as well. Pollsters have long measured Americans' level of trust in government, tracking changes in attitudes toward government as important national events occurred.

A 1958 measure of trust in government conducted by the National Election Survey found 73 percent trusted the government to do what is right all or most of the time; by 1970 that had dropped to 53 percent, and in the aftermath of Watergate was as low as 36 percent. The percentage rose during Ronald Reagan's presidency, but by the mid 1990s the percentage that trusted government all or most of the time had fallen once again.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 led to a widespread sense of national unity; President George W. Bush's approval rating rose to 90 percent and trust in government rose as well, to 55 percent. But by October 2008, just before Barack Obama's election to the presidency, trust in government had reached an all-time low of 17 percent.


Reaction to initiatives led by both the Bush and Obama administrations suggest reasons for the public's low estimation of government. CBS News Polls have shown consistent public frustration over government bailouts. Many Americans have disapproved of the government assistance provided to large banks and financial institutions, and think the Obama administration has done too much for that industry.

In addition, the government bailout of U.S. automakers in 2009 never received support from a majority of Americans.

And few Americans have expected much personal benefit from the health care reform that has been debated in Congress for much of the past year: CBS News Polls have shown that only a minority of Americans expected health care reform to lower their costs or improve the quality of the health care they receive.

The lack of bipartisanship in Congress has probably also contributed to the public's negative views of government. CBS News Polls have shown that Americans like bipartisanship and compromise, but few think the Republicans in Congress are trying to work with President Obama. And four in five Americans think Congress is more interested in serving the needs of special interests rather than the people they represent.

Sen. Evan Bayh Blames Partisanship
Evan Bayh: "I Do Not Love Congress"

Given the lack of public enthusiasm for these initiatives, and falling approval ratings for political leaders, it isn't surprising that the percentage of Americans that prefers a smaller government providing fewer services has risen recently to 56 percent, up from 48 percent last April and now the highest level recorded in CBS News Polls since 1996.

More on the CBS News/NYT Polls:

Overview of the CBS News/NYT Poll
Poll: Economy Brings Down Obama's Job Approval Rating
Poll: Who Are the Tea Partiers?
Poll: 70 Percent Angry or Dissatisfied with Washington
Support for Gays in the Military Depends on the Question
Poll Reveals Most Americans Don't Know They Got a Tax Cut
CBS News Poll Database

Sarah Dutton is the CBS News director of surveys. Poll Positions is weekly Hotsheet feature on polling trends from the CBS News Survey and Polling Unit. Click here for more posts from the series.