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Parsing the Polls: Big (Bad) Government?

The U.S. Capitol. Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

There will -- no doubt -- be any number of national issues in play in the 2010 midterm elections but the largest, we believe, will believe the battle between growing and shrinking government.

As we have written before, President Barack Obama and his Administration have placed a big bet that Americans are ready for the size of government to be increased, a recognition that government is the only entity positioned in the near term to grow the country out of its economic recession.

From the economic stimulus package to Obama's proposed budget, the underlying theory is that government is no longer a dirty word.

Republicans have largely lined up in opposition to that approach -- hoping that an emphasis on free market solutions rather than government intervention will get them back to the roots of their past electoral successes.

Where do the American people come down in that debate?

A Gallup survey released this afternoon suggests that Republicans may have found an issue -- finally -- they can run on.

Asked whether "big government", "big labor" or "big business" posed the biggest threat to the future of the country, 55 percent said "big government" while 32 percent chose "big business" and 10 percent opted for "big labor".

Those numbers are basically unchanged from a December 2008 Gallup poll (53 percent government, 31 percent business, 11 percent labor) although in December 2006 more than six in ten Americans believed government was the biggest threat to the country's future.

Does this poll spell trouble for Democrats in 2010? Not necessarily. Obama, to date, has smartly framed the government expansion as a necessity to deal with an historic crisis -- insisting that once the crisis passes, the curve will have to be bent to rein in spending.

But, if Republicans can effectively frame the debate as Democrats simply seeking to grow government -- with no end in sight -- the Gallup numbers suggest they will find a receptive audience.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 20, 2009; 4:23 PM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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katem asks: "you have a country of 300 million plus and expect to be able to rebuild and replace public used infrastructure with smaller government?"

Confucious answered a similar question, cogently and correctly, a very long time ago, recommending that one should govern a large country as he would cook a small fish: Lightly.

The bigger the country, I would argue, the MORE important it is to restrain the size, scope and reach of the government. As it is, only a small fraction of the federal government (or the federal budget) deals with infrastructure, and that isn't the part growing exponentially. MOST of America's infrastructure is built and maintained by some entity other than the federal government... public utilities are state (or local) concerns, telephone and other communications are handled by mostly private companies, airlines, railroad and shipping companies are also privately owned... the federal government is responsible for the interstate highway system, and is involved with rule-making (and some of the funding, no doubt) for airports, dams, ocean ports and navigation on major waterways, but the bigger the nation, the less efficient central planning and management becomes, and the stronger the argument for decentralization of responsibility and authority...for more reliance on state and local authorities, rather than the federal government, for building and maintaining infrastructure.

Posted by: Observer44 | April 21, 2009 4:52 PM | Report abuse

you have a country of 300 million plus and expect to be able to rebuild and replace public used infrastructure with smaller government? Get with the 21century people, those crying for smaller government want the gov to waste time and money in your bedrooms and doctors offices. But not on highways, bridges, schools, hospitals, obscene is that???!!!

Posted by: katem1 | April 21, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Republicans are against upsizing .. only b/c Democrats are for upsizing.

Posted by: newbeeboy | April 21, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Good luck with the Republicans running on a platform that big government is bad. After Obama delivers healthcare to 40 million Americans, the Kristol doctrine will kick in and the Republicans will have lost the middle class (what's left of it) for generations. But dream on, Chris Drudge.

Posted by: MadAsHell3 | April 21, 2009 12:43 AM | Report abuse


...all of them.

OR (if link is corrupted / disabled):

Posted by: scrivener50 | April 20, 2009 11:44 PM | Report abuse

That last sentence should read: "In one week, these gladhanding fools managed to inflict more damage on themselves, over one issue they swore they wouldn't touch, than anything the Republican's could have ever dreamt of."

I might add, by attempting to use a treaty to do this, the Transnationalists of the Obama Administration managed to emasculate themselves and alienated them from enough of their (former) supporters that it is hard to imagine them accomplishing anything for the remainder of this Administration. That they will be cheered on by ever fewer left wing nut cases like Dionne and Obermann and the lunatic apologists for the Brady Bunch and Numerically Challenged Moms will only serve to keep Obama's disrespect for the Second Amendment and the Bill Of Rights before the public eye, chipping away at Obama's approval rating and alienate more and more of the public. Again, what on earth were they thinking!!!!

Posted by: mibrooks27 | April 20, 2009 11:22 PM | Report abuse

Republicans have a lot of nerve trying to run on fiscal responsibility, considering the spending track record of Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II. Forget the tax cuts, these characters have a lot of explaining to do. At the end of the day, however, the defining factor of the elections will be the impatient A.D.D. of the American people. Maybe we'll just be plain sick of waiting around for the stimulus projects to work.

Posted by: JohnStewartKill | April 20, 2009 11:03 PM | Report abuse


Oh No! Worser and worser!!

The republicans won't even contract it out, as that would be SPENDING!

Why isn't GM making Humvees by the thousands? Most of the National Guards have been stripped of their trucks and Humvees to keep the war in Iraq going, and badly need replacement vehicles, but GM and Chrysler aren't tooling up to produce either replacements of follow on vehicles. We are grinding down our A10 force, and neither putting the production line back into production nor developing a next gen tank killer. e are running two wars and still have a depression. HOW? In a war you at least get industries making war materials. In these wars we aren't buying the gear we need, just using up what we already have. WHAT KIND OF MANAGEMENT IS THAT?

The only ongoing weapons development programs we have are those with too much political backing to kill. We aren't developing weapons based on lessons learned in the deserts and mountains we are now fighting in. Virtually nothing new is getting into the field, and for that matter not much new is being developed. (My son did tell me they have a new, "Stripable armor" that can be easily shucked from a casualty to permit moving him, but even that isn't ubiquitous in combat, the way it should be.

Try looking this up: find any major arms, armor, stores, or clothing manufacturer bucking the trend of lay offs and down sizing.

Again, how do you do that in TWO shooting wars?

It is taking Obama time to get up to speed, but when Gates starts coming in with big budget requests to rearm and rearmor the Army, expect Tea Party Tantrums about that spending, too.

We have NO PGMs or their other high speed deep water ptrol vessels. we need lots of them in the Indian Ocean to effectively chase pirates. We need every LPH, LHA, and other large amphib available to carry patrol helicopters off Somalia. Damn few are available. None are getting ready.

You can look at any, and every, well recognized Governmental function and see no spending activity commensurate with our current needs.

Those programs cost money and create jobs, and the Tea Partyers object on both accounts.

It would be "Big Government."

Tell me again about "Support our troops."

Posted by: ceflynline | April 20, 2009 10:44 PM | Report abuse

Chris, your characterization of the poll results is a little awkward...uhhh, wrong! Both Obama and the Democratic Congress were hit with 8 point drops. That drop occurred during the very first news of Obama's trial balloon for doing an end run around the Constitution to impose gun control laws. The full effect of that is being discussed, but not reported in the major market media. It was and is a disaster, an 18 point hit. And these clodhoppers soooo richly deserve it! Morons, idiots, smug self serving East Coast Brady Bunch bedwetters. Don't they even THINK! Out West that created a firestorm and will cost Obama and the Democratic leadership support across the board... NO ONE TRUSTS THEM ANY MORE. In one week, these gladhanding fools managed to inflict more damage on themselves, over one issue they swore they would touch, than anything the Republican's could have ever dreamt of.

Posted by: mibrooks27 | April 20, 2009 10:42 PM | Report abuse

bender1 wrote, "Conservatism was abandoned by Repubs in favor of big spending and preachy, phony posturing. The Dem leaders nauseate me too, but Repubs need to be left in the woodshed until they get their minds right."

Bender, I'm your left-wing counterpart. I am way to your left, and strongly support, for instance, universal health care. But like you, I have my doubts about my own ideological counterparts. In this case, my fear is that universal health care will mean that every do-gooder in the universe feels free to tell me what to eat, drink, and smoke, since they're going to be paying for my health insurance.

Anyhow, it's good for us to discuss things this way.

Posted by: douglaslbarber | April 20, 2009 8:32 PM | Report abuse

"'On the flip side, if the economy is dragging, Dems & the Obama admin will lose big."

Only if the Republicans can come up with a lot better candidates than they've got right now. The current crop appeals only to the base -- all they've got is empty rhetoric about an ideological movement that failed so badly it destroyed the world's economy.

Posted by: drindl"

Hey drindl, good post. I vote mostly conservative (some Texas Dems are conservative) but the Repubs are totally rudderless. I disagree that an ideological movement failed. Conservatism was abandoned by Repubs in favor of big spending and preachy, phony posturing. The Dem leaders nauseate me too, but Repubs need to be left in the woodshed until they get their minds right.

Posted by: bender1 | April 20, 2009 8:11 PM | Report abuse

ceflynline wrote, "The republicans failed to maintain the physical plant that only Governments can properly maintain," in the course of making a fine Democratic post.

More and more of this is going to be coming up over the next 50 years. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) keeps some tabs on neglected infrastructure, and it ain't purtah - bridges and water mains come to mind.

I expect that Republicans will say "let's contract it out to private industry because always and everywhere private business does better work cheaper than government."

To which I would reply, "And the evidence which supports your belief is what?"

In most parts of the USA you don't have to drive more than 20 minutes to see public works accomplished under Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA, later known as the Works Projects Administration) which still stand today.

How's anything built by private industry in 1935 holding up, compared to those works?

Posted by: douglaslbarber | April 20, 2009 7:11 PM | Report abuse

The issue of big government has always been there for the Republicans, in 2010 it will be a bigger issue. The Democratic Party can only tax and spend, not govern people that wants to be free from it's benevolent tyranny.

Posted by: xthat | April 20, 2009 7:08 PM | Report abuse

Hopefully, we can turn this economy around and actually focus on solving the deeper, systemic issues for why we're in this situation, rather than trying to frame the debate in terms of big or small government. It's a matter of necessary vs unnecessary government and we need to start addressing the problems entrenched in our society. Obviously bad banking's a good place to start, but there are other issues, like global poverty, that have huge economic and geopolitical ramifications.

The Borgen Project ( has some interesting insight into addressing the issues of global poverty, something we can remedy easily and sustainably.

Some interesting figures to ponder:
$30 billion USD: The annual shortfall to end global poverty.
$550 billion USD: The annual US defense budget.

Posted by: concernedcitizen1111 | April 20, 2009 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Attention: David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, Jay Carney...


Barack Obama must start sounding more like a populist -- evoking Bill Clinton's refrain that "the era of big government is over," even as he deigns to justify massive government spending as a recession cure.

He also needs to demonstrate his commitment to ending big government infringement on civil and human rights by ending the Bush-Cheney "extrajudicial punishment network."

This array of secret programs and policies has turned virtually EVERY police force, fire department and federally-funded citizen community policing and public safety organization in America into an enabling apparatus for a covert army of citizen stormtroopers -- an American Gestapo.

Democracy is being stolen at the grassroots -- but Team Obama has yet to take down this extrajudicial apparatus, which has made a mockery of the rule of law, and continues to violate the civil and human rights of innocent but "targeted" Americans nationwide.

He can start in Bucks County, PA, where a "citizen's corps" of federally-funded community vigilantes drive government-subsidized vehicles to hunt down, terrorize and vandalize their "targets" -- using a GPS tracking system that's known to every law enforcement agency working the county.

The victims of this officially-enabled abuse are told there is "nothing to investigate." That's true; government knows all about it, and continues to look the other way.

You must act now to set an example for law enforcement agencies nationwide -- by sending a message that the era of vigilante INjustice is finally over.

RE: "American Gestapo," "Domestic Torture Via Radiation Weaponry," "Fusion Center Spying."

Posted by: scrivener50 | April 20, 2009 5:54 PM | Report abuse

The most important reason that Republicans are screaming "Too much spending" is that they realize that a major part of the current problem is that, over the last twenty years of republican Presidencies, those Republicans didn't give us nearly enough of the government we all agree is needed. The republicans failed to maintain the physical plant that only Governments can properly maintain, entirely because to do the maintenance they would to have had to spend money, and to have the money to spend they wouldn't have been able to cut taxes.

Nobody seems to want to point out that virtually all of the non health care spending will go to projects that have been pending for far too long because, having been researched, vetted, engineered and sent out for competitive bidding, those projects had to be deferred because the funds couldn't be raised.

Whenever republicans start screaming "Pork", you can bet it was actually a needed project that would have taken money from the highway trust fund to maintain or upgrade an Interstate or an U. S. Highway.

When the better case scenario plays out, the "All Government is the Enemy" Reaganites lose the credibility they have already forfeited over "Tax Cuts increase Revenues" or at least "Tax Cuts for the Wealthy stimulate the economy."

The Tea Party tantrums won;t obfuscate those facts at all, and the Reagan rebellion will dry up and blow away.

Posted by: ceflynline | April 20, 2009 5:34 PM | Report abuse

good post, douglas barber.I recommend a new book on Keynesian economics to you, called 'Animal Spirits' -- about how the financial markets are controlled not by reason or logic, but by complex and irrational emotional behaviors.

Posted by: drindl | April 20, 2009 5:28 PM | Report abuse

'On the flip side, if the economy is dragging, Dems & the Obama admin will lose big."

Only if the Republicans can come up with a lot better candidates than they've got right now. The current crop appeals only to the base -- all they've got is empty rhetoric about an ideological movement that failed so badly it destroyed the world's economy.

Posted by: drindl | April 20, 2009 5:24 PM | Report abuse

I hope President Obama reads and studies that poll and takes it to heart.

In order to succeed, he is going to have to tackle that issue head-on, with all the articulacy at his command.

I believe that it should be possible to explain to a majority of US voters that the worst economic fiasco of the last three generations was brought on in large part, not by growing government, but by abandoning its legitimate economic role in favor of an ideology unsupported by evidence.

When even Alan Greenspan admits that his belief in the efficacy of unregulated markets was mistaken, I'm inclined to think there's some "there" there, though it may depend on what the meaning of "is" is.

Posted by: douglaslbarber | April 20, 2009 5:23 PM | Report abuse

Presidential candidate Obama promised to demonstrate a new tone for international relations. Apparently that new approach includes criticizing America, groveling to dictators and rogue leaders, allowing others’ agendas to trump ours, forgetting history, and a willingness to sacrifice Americans and their money while giving allies a pass.

Posted by: king_of_zouk | April 20, 2009 4:43 PM | Report abuse

So.. tell me one more time.. which politicians (don't bother with party affiliations) are against big government?

'Who's afraid of the Big, Bad Gov't.?'

Posted by: newbeeboy | April 20, 2009 4:40 PM | Report abuse

The challenge will be in the definition of the Obama Administration as 'big government'. If the Obama Admin can make good on their effort to eliminate certain programs, their argument will be: competent government is good; size is less relevant. To put it in media-friendly buzzword form: "Its about competence, stupid."

Part II: if the economy stabilizes and starts showing signs of turnaround by mid 2010, the Obama administration can say "we did what we had to do" while the Repubs are left with "ignore the results; big gov't is bad, bad, bad." On the flip side, if the economy is dragging, Dems & the Obama admin will lose big.

Posted by: bsimon1 | April 20, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

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