"We're defining it as we go. At one level, I'm not sure they knew what the New Deal was when they were doing it. (We see) the government as a facilitator, creating opportunities for people to make the best of their lives. That means making sure college education is affordable and accessible -- not guaranteeing what your grades are, but (ensuring) your ability to go to school."
The White House describes the stimulus spending as a jump-start for the economy and the corporate rescue plans as temporary measures to help troubled banks and automakers regain stability. On the other hand, the new regulatory structures for financial institutions would be permanent, and Obama's $3.5 trillion budget -- sending more money to education, energy and health care -- reflects his long-term priorities.
In the USA TODAY poll, solid majorities support administration programs that direct money close to home, including aid to struggling homeowners, school districts and road-building projects. But they oppose the plans to bail out banks and automakers.
Views are mixed and sometimes conflicting. Support for temporarily nationalizing banks that are struggling has increased in recent weeks -- the public is now evenly divided -- but there's no increased support for a government-run health care system. Fifty percent say the government "is trying to do too much"; 42 percent say it should be doing more.
"It's kind of a really tricky situation with everything," says Jessica Owens, 28, a stay-at-home mother from Brownsburg, Ind., a suburb of Indianapolis, who was called in the survey.
What should government do?
"I think their role is to prevent a collapse," she says in a phone interview as her three preschool daughters vie for her attention. "Their role definitely is, if there's job creation that could be done. And the construction sector, doing things like building roads; I think that's a great thing for them to do. Also, their job is to figure out why this happened and to keep it from happening again."
In 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan ousted a sitting president and launched a conservative tide by arguing government had gotten too intrusive and expensive.
"In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," he said in his 1981 inaugural address, delivered during a time of economic upheaval.
That year, Americans by more than 2-to-1 said "Big Government," not "big business," was the larger threat. Anti-government sentiment helped sweep Republicans into control of Congress in 1995. In his State of the Union address in 1996, Democrat President Clinton declared, "The era of Big Government is over."
By the time George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, Big Government was seen as a larger threat than big business by nearly 3-to-1.
Now the tide has turned, at least a bit. Reports of corporate excess and malfeasance have fueled suspicion of corporate America, and eagerness to have government turn around the economy has reduced the number who view it as a threat.
Even so, but 55 percent to 32 percent Americans still say they worry more about Big Government, a concern that Republicans have tapped in opposing Obama's programs as too costly and wrongheaded, even dangerous. Rep. Spencer Bachus told a hometown audience in Alabama on Thursday that 17 members of Congress were "socialists" who were pushing Obama to the left.