The U.S. president is the CEO of the government. By definition, it follows that the government will soon become President-elect Donald Trump’s biggest responsibility. This is no minor challenge. Americans view the government as one of the nation’s two most important problems today, along with the economy.
From the people’s perspective, the issues with government are threefold — and each will demand Trump’s attention. They include the stark philosophical controversy over the proper role of government in people’s lives, no matter how efficient; the people’s issues with the effectiveness and efficiency of government; and the people’s abject disrespect for the elected branches of government.
The Appropriate Role of Government
Americans as a whole want government to play a balanced role in the nation’s life, neither retreating to a strict libertarian minimalist position nor moving to a full-fledged central government state. Americans, in essence, recognize that the government has major problems but also has a major role to play in today’s global and complex world environment. In order to follow public opinion, a leader must thread the needle between these two extremes.
The focus on the appropriate role of government in 2016 remains as central and fundamental a concern as it was in the late 1700s when the Founding Fathers were framing the Constitution.
Two long-term trends are relevant here. Since 1993, Gallup has asked Americans to choose between two options: 1) that the government should do more to solve our country’s problems or 2) that the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. The public is divided, with 54% saying the government is doing too much and 41% saying the government should do more. A separate question asks Americans to rate their views on a 1 to 5 scale, where 5 means the government should take active steps in every area it can to improve the lives of its citizens and 1 means the government should do only what is necessary to provide the most basic government functions. The results consistently show that about a third put themselves on the “take active steps” end of the spectrum, while a third choose the “only basic functions” option for the optimal role of government — with the rest in the middle.
What I read into the data is that the average American, some 240 years after the country’s founding, remains torn about what the federal government should or should not do. The founders would probably recognize this as a continuing and inevitable part of the philosophical issues with which they wrestled and would be sympathetic to the dilemma. But as was the case then, there is no supermajority on either side of the equation. Trump has indicated that he wants government to do more in some areas like the military or infrastructure, while doing less in other areas such as paying for a new Air Force One or entitlement programs. He will need to continue to figure out exactly what government should and should not be doing in today’s contemporary society, heeding the public’s guidance not to go too far to either extreme.
Efficiency and Effectiveness of the Federal Government
The American public’s opinion on the actual government departments and agencies that carry out the work — in essence, federal government bureaucracies — is not clear-cut.
We know that the “federal government” ranks dead last among a long list of business and industry sectors we measure each year. But we don’t know if the people are talking mainly about Congress or the bureaucracies or some other aspect of the federal government. Americans have positive images of a number of government agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service, the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and NASA. The people have more confidence in the U.S. military than in any other institution we test. So the public certainly thinks some areas of government are doing OK.
But then again, it’s hard to argue against the idea of improving the efficiency and effectiveness of any entity. The challenge is how to bring that about. One way is simply to assume there is waste in government and attempt to purge it by reducing the size of agencies and departments. Ted Cruz advocated on the campaign trail that whole departments and agencies of government be shut down and that three government employees had to leave for every one who was hired. Americans were not enthusiastic about either of those proposals. Trump himself has advocated freezing federal government hiring and eliminating regulations.
Bill Clinton and Al Gore tried to tackle government efficiency with what became the National Partnership for Reinventing Government. Some of its efforts were successful, but certainly this did not produce a massive or lasting change. President Barack Obama also tried to make government more efficient, with clearly less-than-highly successful results.
Trump has appointed high-level business and military executives to his Cabinet posts, individuals who presumably have experience in making large organizations work well. Only time will tell how effective they can be in using this expertise to affect the operations of massive federal bureaucracies.
Low Regard for Elected Representatives in Washington
Trump’s most important governmental challenge, in my view, will be dealing with the public’s basic lack of confidence in the men and women they elect and send to Washington to represent them.
Congress approval for the year 2016 is 17%, within three percentage points of its all-time low. Our just-completed update on the honesty and ethics of professions shows that members of Congress are dead last in a list of 22 professions tested and the only profession with “low” or “very low” ratings above 50%. Confidence in Congress as an institution is also dead last in a list of 15 institutions Gallup measured in June.
Other Gallup research shows unequivocally that Americans’ distrust of their own representatives in action comes back to the perception that they are controlled by those with money, special interests and lobbyists — not the people they represent.
The public’s disdain for Congress poses a major dilemma for Trump. He can attempt to make government more efficient, and he can propose areas where he wants government to do more (military, Veterans Affairs, infrastructure, building a wall) and those where he wants government to do less or at least do things differently (building a new Air Force One, Medicare and Social Security). But he is going to have to deal with and through Congress to get many of these things done. And that’s going to be a challenge because the public has no faith in Congress to do anything.
It’s hard for Americans to want to vest more power in the federal government when they think it is under the control of people whose honesty they don’t trust and for whom they have little respect. It’s similarly hard for the public to vest Congress with the power to cut or revise programs, for the same reasons.
Trump can’t act completely on his own, as much as his career as head of his own company would suggest he wants to. He is going to have to work with Congress. He has no experience with politics or in elected office. He has no knowledge of or experience with the often Byzantine procedures that typify Congress’ operations. Trump’s Republican Party has majority control of both the House and the Senate, but Trump also faces a public with little faith in these bodies, regardless of their partisan persuasion.
Trump himself is a critic of Congress, advocating “draining the swamp” in Washington; calling for a constitutional amendment imposing term limits on members of Congress; and proposing various bans on members of Congress becoming lobbyists after they leave the government. Those types of actions are negative and punitive, reinforcing the public’s disdainful views of the institution. The public certainly would go along with the ideas of term limits and restrictions on lobbying, but it’s not clear how much these actions would help cure the underlying problem — that the people don’t see that Congress is acting in their best interests. Trump’s best course of action may be to move in a positive direction — attempting to work with Congress, cooperating in a rational way, getting things done and in general helping convince Americans that the legislative branch can actually work. His ability to do these things and, in so doing, to help restore the public’s faith in Congress, will in many ways determine the success of his administration.
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