Public trust returning to 'normal' lows

New surveys show a resurgence of public criticism of government after the 9/11 crest of support.

It's over.

The enormous spike in trust which Americans placed in the federal government after Sept. 11 has crested, and is now on the way back down, approaching pre-attack levels.

The reverse trend doesn't surprise public- opinion experts, who explain that in the eight months since the attacks, Americans have simply returned to their more normal state of criticism and distrust of government.

Yet others are almost wistful about the disappearing surge, saying that elected officials and federal workers have missed an opportunity for reform while they had the country's support.

"We had that big run-up in trust, and we'll look back on that and say, 'Gee, what did we do with it?' And the answer will be, 'not much,' " says Paul Light, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.

Yesterday, Brookings released a study that shows public trust in government has fallen 17 points since its high in October, when an unusually high 57 percent of Americans trusted the government "just about always" or "most of the time" to "do what's right."

Whether the indicator will reach its low of 29 percent just prior to 9/11 is unknown, says Mr. Light, whose May survey broadly reflects other national polls.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center here, says his most recent poll shows the percentage of people critical of national conditions has fallen back to the level of just before the attacks. His findings reflect "a more normal environment with regard to people's willingness to express criticisms or feel criticisms," he says. Certainly politicians in Washington are having no trouble pushing the criticism button.

Yet Mr. Kohut isn't convinced that distrust will return to levels of the early 1990s, when the public was disgusted with partisan gridlock and government incompetence. "I think the public will continue to see the federal government as more important than ... in the past, because of its intense interest in the war on terrorism and protecting the homeland," he says.

Indeed, it is the leaders of America's fight against terrorism who are keeping the government trust indicator from falling even further, explains Light.

Powell most popular

Job approval ratings of political leaders are still strong, with Secretary of State Colin Powell the most popular member of the administration. At 85 percent, he bests George Bush by 10 points – and Mr. Bush is enjoying the most sustained high presidential job approval on record.

Below the high-profile leaders, however, Americans are right back to their negative views of government and bureaucracy, says Light. Trust in federal workers, for instance, is exactly as it was before 9/11.

Light is especially concerned about the implications for the federal workforce which is facing a dearth of workers. Though surveys show an increase in the number of college students who'd consider working for the government, there is a "Grand Canyon of difference between asking if they would consider service in government, and asking if they actually did [consider it]," says Light. His survey of college seniors showed that government work came in last as an actual consideration of students.

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