Jan. 15, 2002 -- When it comes to trust in government, a new ABCNEWS.com poll suggests that Americans haven't changed, the subject has.
The public by a wide margin does trust the federal government when it comes to handling national defense and the war on terrorism, the poll finds. But when it comes to handling social issues, Americans' distrust of the government remains high.
This result calls into doubt reports of a fundamental change in views of the government since Sept. 11. Those cited a sharp increase in the number of people who say they "trust the government in Washington to do what's right," a poll question that dates to the 1950s. But the question is a vague one: Trust the government … to do what?
ABCNEWS tested the issue with two questions: Half the respondents in this poll were asked if they trust the government to do what's right "when it comes to handling national security and the war on terrorism." Sixty-eight percent said yes. The other half were asked if they trust the government to do what's right "when it comes to handling social issues like the economy, health care, Social Security and education." Far fewer — 38 percent — said yes.
This suggests that people haven't changed nearly as much as their frame of reference has changed. It seems likely that before Sept. 11 people assessed the government chiefly in terms of social policy, an area in which trust was low, and still is. Today, however, many more people are focused on national security, an area in which trust runs high.
The difference between these views is mirrored by the change in the broader version of this question. In an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll in spring of 2000, just 30 percent said they "trust the government in Washington to do what's right." In late September, that soared to 64 percent. The pre-Sept. 11 level is similar to the current trust on social issues; the post-Sept. 11 level is similar to the current trust on national security. That buttresses the notion that the main change is in the public's frame of reference, not its basic trust.
Polls also indicate that this newfound "trust" peaked in September, shortly after the terrorist attacks, and has abated somewhat since. That's occurred in the same period in which economic concerns have risen to parity with concerns about further terrorism.
The issue's an important one, inspiring fresh debate on the role and size of government and perhaps informing some of George W. Bush's thinking as he prepares his State of the Union address. While further examination is warranted, these results suggest that public desire for activist government post-Sept. 11 is largely limited to the specific goal of defeating terrorism.
The split in trust of government on security vs. social issues crosses political lines. In both cases trust is highest among Republicans, reflecting their home-team support for the Bush administration.
This result shows how partisanship can color views: Democrats, traditionally seen as more trustful of government in terms of social policy, actually are less so when a Republican administration is carrying it out.
This ABCNEWS.com survey was conducted by telephone was conducted by telephone Jan. 9-13 among a random national sample of 1,023 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation were conducted by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.
Previous ABCNEWS polls can be found in our Poll Vault.