States of dismay as poll shows gloom

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Americans enter 2014 with a profoundly negative view of their government, expressing little hope that elected officials can or will solve the nation’s biggest problems, a new poll has found.

Half said America’s system of democracy needs either “a lot of changes” or a complete overhaul, according to the poll by the AP-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research. Just one in 20 said it works well and needs no changes.

Americans, who have a reputation for optimism, have a sharply pessimistic take on their government after years of disappointment in Washington.

The percentage of people saying the nation is heading in the right direction has not topped 50 in about a decade. In the new poll, 70 per cent lack confidence in the government’s ability “to make progress on the important problems and issues facing the country in 2014”.

The poll comes two months after partisan gridlock prompted the first government shutdown in 17 years.

But people feel somewhat better about their personal lives. Most have at least some confidence that they will be able to handle their own problems in the coming year. A narrow majority say they would do a better job running the country than today’s leaders in Washington.

Local and state governments inspire more faith than the national government, according to the poll, with 45 per cent at least moderately confident in their state government and 54 per cent expressing that much confidence in their local government.

When asked to name up to 10 problems they would “like the government to be working on” in 2014, Americans chiefly cite issues that have dominated – and often flummoxed – the White House and Congress for five years.

Healthcare reform topped the list. It is likely, however, that those naming the issue include both opponents and supporters of President Barack Obama’s sweeping health overhaul.

Jobs and the economy were next, followed by the nation’s debt and deficit spending.

Some issues that draw ample media and campaign attention rank lower in the public’s priorities. No more than three per cent of Americans listed gay rights, abortion or domestic spying as prime topics for government action.

Regardless of the issue, Americans express remarkably little confidence that the government can make real progress.

For instance, 86 per cent of those who called healthcare reform a top priority said they want the government to put “a lot” or “a great deal” of effort into it. But about half of them (49 per cent) are “not at all confident” there will be real progress, and 20 per cent are only “slightly confident”.

This yawning gap between public desires and expectations is one of the poll’s most striking findings. Even on an issue completely within the government’s control, the budget and national debt, 65 per cent of those who called it a priority say they have no confidence in the government’s ability to fix it.

But asked generally about the role of government in society, the poll finds Americans divided on how active they want government to be. Half say “the less government the better” but almost as many (48 per cent) say “there are more things that government should be doing”.

On the economy, the poll finds a clear public desire for active government. Fifty-seven per cent of Americans say “we need a strong government to handle today’s complex economic problems”.

Americans do not feel terribly optimistic about their own economic opportunities. Although 49 per cent say their standard of living surpasses their parents’, most are pessimistic about the opportunity to achieve the American dream.

Few are hopeful that the pieces are in place for the government to improve. About half are pessimistic about the country’s ability to produce strong leaders generally.