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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Government has to regain the people's trust

By Doyle McManus

This just in: Americans don't trust their government.

A spate of recent polls has found that faith in the federal government has sunk to near-record lows. In one survey, only 22 percent of those polled said they trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time. More people said the federal government has a negative impact on their lives than said it has a positive one. Even relatively popular agencies such as the Defense Department and the Social Security Administration have seen their standings slip.

The last time those numbers sank so low was 1994, when then-President Clinton's Democrats ran into trouble with voters over health care. In case you've forgotten what happened in that year's congressional election, it was a Republican landslide.

What accounts for today's sour mood? Just what you'd expect. The economy's improvement has so far delivered early profits to Wall Street but little comfort to Main Street. The president who promised bipartisan solutions for the economy pushed through a health care bill that only one party supported. And in Congress, the two parties remain locked in nasty election-year bickering.

This anti-government mood has become one of Obama's biggest problems. And the consequences extend well beyond the likely drubbing his Democrats will suffer at the polls in November.

Obama still has an ambitious agenda he'd like to enact, including financial sector regulation, energy legislation and education and immigration reform. He still needs to implement his landmark health care reform law. And looming over all these is the federal government's growing fiscal crisis: Social Security and Medicare spending is about to soar while tax revenues lag.

If voters don't think the federal government is capable of solving problems, Obama is going to have a hard time winning their support for higher taxes and lower benefits sacrifices that are necessary for a better future.

In a sense, Obama is a victim of his own initial achievements. In his first 15 months, he focused on enacting ambitious new programs, and largely succeeded.

Shoved to a back burner, partly because of the recession, was the "conservative" side of his agenda: fixing the deficit and making government more efficient.

Obama's strength, so far, has been in designing big initiatives and using his Democratic majority to enact them. His weakness has been in politics: convincing voters that these were good things to do.

The Obama administration has another good initiative, called "modernizing government," but you've probably never heard of it. It's hidden in the Office of Management and Budget under a team of former corporate wizards, including the federal government's first-ever "chief performance officer."

They are smart people with good ideas, some of which have even been implemented. (Applicants for citizenship can now track their application status on a website.)

But others have stalled.

Obama's worthy "modernizing government" effort hardly matters if it's invisible to all those voters who don't trust their government to do anything right.