Why Public Silence Greets Government Success

(PRNewsFoto/Direct Relief)

Offloading Ebola relief supplies from Direct Relief to aid in response efforts.

This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

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Last October, Obama administration officials, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urged Americans to remain calm as Ebola first appeared in the United States. One person had died from the disease in an American hospital, while new diagnoses had appeared in both Dallas and New York City. But with each new case, critics became louder and more angry—not just at the president, who was resisting calls for travel bans and mandatory quarantines, but at the whole government apparatus, which seemed unable to stop a potentially catastrophic epidemic.

“Ebola has crystallized the collapse of trust in state authorities,” columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in The Washington Post. Ron Fournier, writing in National Journal, hit the same theme. “Ebola is a serious threat,” he wrote, “but it’s not the disease that scares me. What scares me is the fact that we can’t trust the institutions that are supposed to deal with such threats, and we can’t trust the men or women who lead them.”

By the middle of November, the outlook on Ebola had changed dramatically. Every single person who had contracted the disease in the United States had recovered from it—thanks to care at specially equipped facilities that the U.S. government either had built previously or had, in response to the crisis, retrofitted to handle Ebola cases. The administration’s decision to rely exclusively on light airport screening and self-reporting, pilloried as weak even by some fellow Democrats, had apparently done the trick. Since the imposition of those measures, not one single person had contracted the disease in the United States. In West Africa, where the epidemic had been spreading out of control, health-care workers had finally begun to contain it—thanks in part to assistance that the Obama administration had sent.

In short, the Ebola response turned out to be a clear public health success—a model for effective, responsive government action. So, of course, the earlier critics admitted their mistakes, and the media celebrated a great triumph of government policy.

Not exactly. In fact, it’s hard to tell whether anybody in America noticed. Media coverage of Ebola nearly vanished in November: According to a study by Media Matters, CNN ran 146 stories on Ebola the week of October 14, when panic was peaking. One month later, during the week of November 11, it ran just five. The change at other networks was nearly identical. Public polling on the issue stopped around Election Day, so there’s no way to tell whether confidence in the CDC, which had started falling during October, ever recovered. But the pundits and politicians who had attacked the agency (and the administration) for its supposedly feckless response were in no rush to apologize or hail its good works. 

The pattern, alas, has become familiar. Last summer, as tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Latin America showed up at the border, critics were quick to blame the Obama administration for having caused the problem (by telegraphing that undocumented immigrants would get some kind of amnesty) and then not solving it (by refusing to block those children or to deport them immediately). The Obama administration, arguing that the influx reflected long-standing U.S. policies and a spike in violence in three Central American countries, decided instead to improve and expedite the process for reviewing such immigration cases. It also used diplomacy, plus economic support for those three countries, to reduce the flow of refugees at the source. Within three months, the flow of minors had slowed dramatically. At worst, the administration had reacted a little slowly to a difficult situation; at best, it had handled it as well as a government could handle it. But by the time the “border crisis” had ended, it was no longer a topic of discussion in the media or in Washington. Government had done its job, but the national conversation had long since moved on.

Pretty much the same thing happened after the government’s most spectacular failure of the last few years: the launch of healthcare.gov, Obamacare’s online marketplace. For nearly two months in the fall of 2013, the website simply did not work; people desperate for coverage, in many cases because their old policies had just been canceled, had no practical way to buy insurance. For a while, it looked as if a technical problem—the inability to make a website work—might undermine the entire universal health-care project.

But then the administration managed to pull off a technological rescue job almost as spectacular as the failure itself. More important, the Affordable Care Act began to deliver on its promise of helping millions of otherwise uninsured Americans get affordable, reliable insurance for the first time—while quite possibly contributing to a historic, unprecedented slowdown in health-care costs. But media and political attention to Obamacare’s successes have never rivaled the discussions of its failures, real or imagined. Even today, it’s routine to hear people in Washington speak of the law as a “debacle” or an example of big government run amok.

The people saying those things, naturally, tend to be Republicans and their conservative allies, whose relentless criticism of government has a lot to do with their relentless opposition to Obama. But to dismiss the skepticism about government as a purely partisan phenomenon would be to ignore the evidence of public disaffection. For more than 50 years, Pew has been asking Americans whether they trust their government to do the right thing all or most of the time. In 1958, the first year of the survey, 73 percent said yes; in 1964, the response rated even higher, at 77 percent. For the last few years, it’s been hovering between 15 and 25 percent. Similar polling from Gallup, over roughly the same time span, has yielded similar findings. Simply put, faith in government is at an all-time low.

That’s not a problem for conservatives, given their very explicit, pronounced opposition to government. For liberals, it’s another story. Any list of liberal ambitions is bound to include projects that require an activist government, whether it’s funding public works, helping new parents pay for day care, or stopping climate change from threatening coastal population centers. As long as public confidence in government remains low, rallying support for such programs will be difficult, if not impossible.

So why has faith fallen as much as it has? And what might liberals do to restore it? The big drop in the Gallup and Pew surveys took place in the late 1960s and 1970s—as the memories of the New Deal and World War II gave way to Vietnam and Watergate, and as white Americans, in particular, grew disenchanted with public programs that they believed, rightly or wrongly, took their hard-earned taxes in order to finance programs for low-income African Americans. Since that time, social scientists tell us, public faith in government has tended to track public perceptions of the economy, rising and falling more or less in tandem with measures like consumer confidence. John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, says that confidence about the economy explains as much as three-quarters of the variation in trust in government during this more recent period. As Sides put it at his blog, The Monkey Cage, “More people will trust the government again when times are good, even if government ain’t.”

That’s almost assuredly true. If the economy becomes stronger—not just growing in the aggregate, but also spreading prosperity to the poor and middle class—the public will probably be more favorably inclined toward government again. But even a flourishing economy won’t restore faith in government to the levels of the mid-1960s. Not coincidentally, this was the time of the Great Society, the last time a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress were able to enact broad, sweeping programs to address pressing public problems. The decline in confidence since that era can’t simply be the product of economic circumstances—or of partisan opposition to Democratic presidents, or of media coverage that habitually, and predictably, hypes bad news more than good.

The changing ambitions of liberalism itself may have something to do with the shift in attitudes toward government. To simplify a bit, Lyndon Johnson, like Franklin Roosevelt, sought highly visible changes in the conditions of American life, including the economy. The liberalism of the 1930s and 1960s aimed to give people jobs, housing, pensions, and insurance—directly through large government programs. These days, the liberal agenda is rarely so easy for people to see or understand.

Take, for example, the Earned Income Tax Credit, which boosts wages for the working poor. It is among the most effective antipoverty policies that the federal government has instituted but is almost invisible to the public. Or consider the home interest mortgage deduction, which benefits nearly every homeowner and also operates through the tax code. As Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler shows in her book, The Submerged State, 60 percent of people claiming the deduction say they have never benefited from a government program. The awareness of government is not that much higher even for other programs, such as federally subsidized college loans. A key factor, as Mettler and co-author Julianna Koch demonstrate in later research, is policy design—in particular, whether getting a benefit from the government requires interacting with it directly in some way. If the benefit comes automatically or invisibly, Americans are much less likely to be aware of it.

That insight may help explain why, particularly during the Obama years, successful policy initiatives have failed to get more attention and approval from the public. The 2009 economic stimulus is one example. Most economists credit the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as it’s officially called, with saving the United States from a much deeper recession and, perhaps, an all-out depression. The administration did try hard to publicize the program’s accomplishments, through everything from presidential speeches to project road signs emblazoned with the Recovery Act logo. But direct infrastructure spending was just one-third of the total largesse. The rest was assistance for individuals, primarily through the tax code, and fiscal relief for state and local government. The larger paychecks saved countless people from financial distress and boosted consumer spending; the transfers to cities and states spared public services from even deeper cuts. Together, these measures helped save jobs, but few people knew the federal government had anything to do with the jobs that were saved.

Of course, the Recovery Act did not produce the quick, robust recovery that Americans wanted. It took five years for the economy to start generating jobs at a significant, steady rate—and it wasn’t until early this year, with announcements from Walmart and other large retailers, that there were some tangible, if still tentative, signs that wages at the lower end of the income scale might finally start rising. The Obama administration need only point to Europe, where austerity policies have produced a far weaker recovery, to show that U.S. economic policies have made a substantial difference in the lives of ordinary Americans. But those policies did not produce a good outcome so much as they avoided a worse outcome. And that’s not something for which people are likely to give the government much credit.

A similar dynamic could be at work with the Affordable Care Act. The program’s successes are tangible and significant. Millions of people have health insurance and can now switch jobs or start a business without worrying that a pre-existing medical condition will preclude them from obtaining coverage. Preliminary research suggests that the newly insured are more likely to get health care, and less likely to endure financial distress from medical bills, than they were before. But for many people, Obamacare’s insurance is merely adequate, rather than generous; relief at having finally gotten coverage may be tempered by the realization that it still leaves them with premiums and out-of-pocket expenses. The law has likely contributed to the historic slowdown in health-care costs. (At the very least, it has not led to new inflation, as so many critics predicted.) But for people who continue to get insurance from an employer, as they did before, the difference may not be visible. They’re paying more for their insurance than they did last year. The fact that the increase is lower than experts had predicted or than they had seen in the past is simply not something they notice.

These policies didn’t become reality in a vacuum. They reflect severe constraints, political and fiscal. In 2009 and 2010, the short window in which Obama was able to pass major policy initiatives through Congress, he had to contend with a Senate in which more-conservative states had disproportionate power—and in which the filibuster meant no measure could pass without a 60-vote supermajority. It’s possible to question the strategic decisions that Obama and Democratic allies made. Maybe they could have pushed through a larger stimulus, or a health-care bill with either more funding or more aggressive controls on prices for drugmakers and insurers. But given the narrow margin for political error—with both the Recovery Act and Affordable Care Act, Democrats had literally no Senate votes to spare—it’s difficult to imagine measures of substantially larger size, or different shape, getting through Congress. A $2 trillion public works program simply wasn’t going to happen, and neither was single-payer—even though there’s a case that both programs would have been preferable, both as policy and politics.

But as liberals think ahead to the next stage of their domestic agenda, they should be more mindful of how policy design affects perceptions. In Washington, the designers of new programs frequently settle upon less generous or less visible programs to make them harder for political opponents to attack. Once in place, however, those programs may also yield fewer political benefits. To rebuild faith in government, liberals will need a strong economy and news media that report success stories as gleefully as they showcase failures. But it would help a lot to design programs that help people visibly and directly, so no one has any doubt where the credit belongs. 

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