Think Tank Urges a Trust in Government Initiative Along with Obama Agenda
By Michael A. Fletcher
President-elect Barack Obama was elected with the largest popular vote margin in two decades, but deep-seated public skepticism toward government will require him to move with caution to implement his agenda, according to a new report by Third Way, a centrist think tank.
Citing polling data showing that American trust in government is at an all-time low, the report's authors said that Obama needs to be attentive to nurturing public faith in government as he moves forward.
"Trust shapes the limits of political possibility," said Elaine C. Kamarck, a political scientist and former Clinton administration official wrote the report with William A. Galston, a political scientist who also worked in the Clinton White House.
Only 17 percent of Americans trust government most of the time, according to the report. While the figure has fluctuated over the years -- reaching a recent height following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks -- it has become a stubborn feature of modern American politics, the report's authors said. Back in 1964, when President Johnson began efforts to make sweeping changes in the domestic policy landscape, 76 percent of Americans aid they trusted government most of the time.
Right now, the nation has high expectations that Obama will do something substantial to address the nation's economic crisis, the authors said. But they cautioned that he should not to overreach, because the public's mood for activist government can quickly turn. That was the case in the early years of the Clinton administration, they said, when a failure to focus on public trust in government helped doom the Clinton health initiative.
To ensure that Obama does not squander his political capital, the authors said he should pursue an explicit trust strategy, which means being careful about how quickly he rolls out his initiatives. As a starting point, Obama has promised a major economic stimulus package after taking office. More long-term, he has promised to push for changes in health care that would make coverage almost universal, while promising to implement a cap-and-trade system to address climate change.
Although many supporters of Obama want him to move rapidly to capitalize on his victory and implement his agenda, the report's authors cautioned that Obama would do better to carefully sequence his initiatives. Complicated issues such as heath care and parts of his energy and climate change agenda might have to wait, they suggested.
"The issue is not being bold versus being cautious," Galston said. "The issue is where to be bold and, in particular, where to be bold first."
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