Most Americans say they're glad big government is back to help through hard times. But they aren't sure they want it to stay.
The Obama administration, trying to reverse the economy's meltdown and prevent it from happening again, is redefining the role of the federal government in the economy -- spending trillions of dollars, building new regulatory systems for financial institutions and effectively taking over a major part of the automobile industry.
Although an expansive federal government hasn't had a defender in the White House for nearly a half-century -- since Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society program -- most Americans in a nationwide USA TODAY/Gallup Poll approve of President Obama and the government's latest assertiveness. However, some of the steps he has ordered have made them wary.
By 3-to-1, those surveyed say government's expansion should be cut back when the economic crisis is over.
"They should do whatever is necessary, especially for the automobile business," says Lee Heffner, 78, of Temple, Pa., who was among those polled. For 50 years, he ran the Ford dealership his father founded during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Even so, he worries, "it seems we're on the trend of nationalization for a lot of things. Once the government gets into something, it's very seldom they back out of it."
Obama on Tuesday defended his economic proposals and the results they've gotten so far, calling it "a new foundation" for sustainable economic growth through this century. "We have been called to govern in extraordinary times," he said in the speech at Georgetown University, cautioning that 2009 "will continue to be a difficult year."
The White House, experimenting with Washington's role in the economy, is taking unprecedented steps: helping some homeowners who can't handle their mortgage payments, underwriting the warranties for GM and Chrysler cars and organizing a huge public-private rescue plan to buy up banks' most troubled assets. The Treasury Department on Friday pegged the budget deficit for this year at $1.75 trillion, nearly quadruple last year's record shortfall.
The moves have raised questions about how far government should go in directing the market, and whether, in some sectors, it could wind up deciding which businesses survive and which ones fail. An opening sketch this month on NBC's Saturday Night Live showed a faux Obama delivering edicts on the survival of everything from fast-food chains to makers of jeans. ("Levi's, yes," the Obama impersonator deadpanned. "Wrangler, no.")
In previous eras, economic calamities reshaped the government and expanded its reach. A depression in the 1890s helped inspire the federal income tax. The financial panic of 1907 made the case for creating the Federal Reserve. The Great Depression led President Franklin Roosevelt to use the federal government to sponsor job programs and deliver electricity to the impoverished Tennessee Valley.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel thinks the nation is at another turning point.
"Every time in a period of crisis -- look at the time of World War II or the Depression, look at the Civil War -- people have reinterpreted what the government can and should do. We're in that moment of time now," he tells USA TODAY. "Crises create that."
Exactly what the final outcome will be isn't clear, he says.
"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."
'Government Is The Problem'
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.
Today's deadline for filing tax returns has provided a peg for Republicans complaining about the tax burdens that they say Obama's programs will create. Tax Day "tea party" protests are scheduled across the country.
White House advisers describe the president's program as pragmatic, not ideological. They say he has paired costly proposals -- the $787 billion stimulus package, $275 billion in housing aid, up to $1 trillion in the bank rescue plan -- with a commitment to reduce the deficit later.
"This is not where we want to be," Emanuel says. "Unfortunately, this stuff was mismanaged (to a point) where the only people who can resolve these problems is the government. We don't relish doing it."
Meanwhile, anxious Americans debate what course is right.
"The bailouts are absolutely the wrong way to go," says Stanley Tessier, 62, who retired to Port St. Lucie, Fla.,from Concord, N.H. "The capitalist way is if a business isn't successful it would fail, and that's the only way any business can work. If you keep rewarding people who don't produce, you have an economy that isn't going to get any better."
Alice Allen, caught in the economy's downward spiral, couldn't disagree more. After losing her home in Ohio to foreclosure, she moved in with a cousin in Richmond, Va. She had retired from an office job but at 62 has started working part time in a school kitchen to make ends meet.
The government's actions amount to a course correction after years of giving big corporations and wealthy folks too much sway, she says. "People on Social Security, fixed incomes, we're the ones that are really struggling and have worked all our lives and really need some help."
How Americans See It
A USA TODAY analysis of the survey finds demographic divisions when it comes to what the federal government should do.
• The largest group, 37 percent of respondents, is comfortable with big government and solidly behind Obama. Nine of 10 approve of the job the president is doing and 85 percent endorse the government's expanded role to deal with the financial crisis. Nearly all of them see big business as a more foreboding threat to the country than Big Government.
This group is mostly Democratic and includes the most liberals. It has more women than men and is slightly younger and better educated than the sample as a whole.
"I don't worry about Big Government," says Lillie Thomas, 74, a retired hotel housekeeping supervisor in Las Vegas. "We should try to help people get back to work and get better health care."
• At the other end of the spectrum is a smaller group that is solidly against the expansion of government and Obama's approach. Even the plan to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, supported by at least three of four people in every other group, is backed by just 8 percent.
Members of this group, which includes 21 percent of respondents, tend to be white and male with education and income levels above the average. They are overwhelmingly Republican and mostly conservative.
Letting the market work -- even if that means allowing automakers such as GM and Chrysler to fail -- would be better than giving the government a say in the companies' leadership and direction, says John Cronkwright, 40, a civil engineer from Liverpool, N.Y. "If we start telling these companies, 'You've got to make this product and that product,' that's not really the American way of free enterprise," he says. "That's more toward socialism."
• In the middle is a group that supports Obama's plan but without much enthusiasm. Most say the government needs to take action to fix the country's economic problems; they also want government's reach cut back when the crisis is over.
These reluctant supporters, 15 percent of respondents, make up the most bipartisan group. A majority are Democrats but nearly four in 10 are Republicans. They are evenly divided between men and women, and the group reflects the national average in income and education.
Pedro Navarro, 21, lives in Muskegon, which has the highest unemployment rate of anywhere in hard-hit Michigan. He is working in a factory that makes truck parts but has seen friends and family members lose their jobs. As for the rescue plan for Detroit, "I believe it's warranted to keep the auto industry up on its feet. Otherwise, the industry will pretty much go under."
Even so, he worries about the government wasting money, and he says it "should step back a little bit" when businesses regain their footing.
• The final group is conflicted and uncertain. They both approve of the job Obama is doing and oppose most of the initiatives he has proposed. This group, 27 percent of respondents, has the lowest average income and education levels of the four groups as well as the largest proportion of women.
"I'm not sitting where I can see all the ins-and-outs," says Edna Baatile, 60, of Tulsa, a former human resources manager for American Airlines. "I guess I just have to keep praying every day for the president and his advisers that they make the right decisions, because nobody knows."
The USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,007 adults, which has a margin of error of +/—3 percentage points, was taken March 27-29 by land line and cellphone.
A New Progressive Era?
Obama's risk and his opportunity come down to this: If the economy doesn't improve, the qualms of many Americans about big government and deficit spending could be reinforced, undercutting confidence in his leadershipdoes and programs and boosting the Republicans who have opposed him. If his actions succeed, some analysts say he could become the sort of transformational leader that Reagan was, putting the country on a different political course for a generation.
Because of the nation's economic woes and its shifting demographics, they argue the United States is poised for a new progressive era, akin to periods of government activism during the tenures of Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century and Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression and World War II.
"There's always latent support for limited government, but given the range of the problems we have now, people are very open to a strong role for government" says John Halpin, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank founded by former aides to President Clinton. Halpin last month co-authored a report on trends in Americans' political ideology.
What's more, growing groups in the population -- the Millennial Generation of those under 30 and Hispanics -- are among those traditionally most comfortable with an activist government. In the USA TODAY survey, 18- to 29-year-olds backed a large government response to the financial crisis by nearly 2-to-1. Those 50 and older divided about evenly.
Kristen Chierus, 26, of North Attleborough, Mass., is focused on the here and now.
"My parents own a small business, and they're hanging on, but it's kind of a day-by-day situation," she says. She got a master's degree in criminal justice last year, but her teaching job at a local college was eliminated, and ny local law enforcement agencies aren't hiring. She has landed a part-time job as a dispatcher for the Hopkinton Police Department as she looks for full-time work and considers returning to school for a doctorate.
She worries the downturn imperils the notion that with hard work and an education, "America is a place you can do anything."
Deanna Penzkofer, 62, of El Mirage, Ariz., an account manager for a credit-card company, agrees the economy is "very scary right now." She's not sure whether Obama's solution will work.
"I'm hoping it will be better by the end of the year," she says. "That's just hoping."