THE current satisfaction over the outcome of the Persian Gulf war has led to unprecedented approval of both the president and the US military. But beneath this recognition of success lies a persistent criticism of many other aspects of national political leadership. The public has criticized officials as concerned mainly with reelection, too influenced by special interests, out of touch, afraid to make tough decisions, short-sighted, and dishonest. This portrait is partly the result of various problems - from the feeling that tax dollars are not well spent to the savings and loan scandal.
Some of the public's disparagement of political leaders stems from a historical tendency in the United States to downplay the role of government. Only 26 percent of those polled in November 1990 approved of the way Congress was handling its job, but the public has seldom held a markedly higher opinion.
Results from a late-January CBS News survey indicate that Congress was benefiting from the general increase in satisfaction associated with the Gulf war, but even in this special situation congressional approval was only 49 percent.
People hold their own representatives in somewhat higher esteem than Congress as a whole, which hints that the problem is not simply the perceived quality of individual leaders.
Americans still intuitively adhere to the maxim that the best government is the one that governs least. Compared to citizens of other democracies, we consistently look less to government to fulfill social needs. Leaders of private institutions are, therefore, often held in higher regard than their governmental counterparts.
The image of current leadership is, moreover, affected by what may be termed ``value nostalgia.'' Whenever a value is deeply held, it is seen as somehow threatened - in the sense that its present condition is more precarious than in the past. In 1990 a majority thought ethics and honesty in politics had fallen during the past 10 years, but people 25 years ago thought the same thing.
The Gulf war aside, Americans see real problems involving current political leadership. Their evaluation is tinged by a circumscribed notion of government and a nostalgic view of a past leadership that in fact, of course, faced its own problems.