Why are Democrats souring on big government?

It's not taxes, regulation, or ObamaCare alone...

Barack Obama
(Image credit: (Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images))

According to a new Gallup poll, 72 percent of Americans say that big government is a greater threat to the U.S. in the future than big business or big labor, a record high in the half century that Gallup has been asking the question. The previous high for big government was 65 percent in 1999 and 2000:

And this isn’t just Fox News-watching Republicans who think that Obama is a Communist Muslim born in Kenya who is plotting to seize all privately-owned guns and declare martial law.

The numbers of Independents and Democrats worried about big government have also dramatically risen. Fifty-six percent of Democrats are now worried about big government, compared to just 32 percent when Obama came to the presidency in 2009:

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The question is: Why?

Is it ObamaCare? Lots of people in America are concerned about ObamaCare, which is unsurprising given that it is a new, complicated law surrounded by uncertainty that has been blighted by website problems. But I don’t think that is what is making Democrats wary of big government — 75 percent of Democrats approve of ObamaCare, compared to just 10 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of Independents.

What about taxes and the redistribution of wealth? That can't be it either because 80 percent of Democrats favor more redistribution, compared to just 28 percent of Republicans.

And what about the regulation of business? Only 26 percent of Democrats think that business is overregulated, compared to 73 percent of Republicans.

Democrats are also the most supportive of government surveillance programs, although by a smaller margin. Forty-nine percent of Democrats approve of the NSA’s telephone and internet surveillance, compared to 32 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of Independents. On this issue, some Democratic opposition to big government is apparent — but it only explains some of the disillusionment because the rise in Democrats' distrust of big government predates the Snowden revelations.

Maybe the best explanation is that the Obama effect is wearing off, as Obama's falling poll numbers suggest. Democratic levels of distrust in big government were high during the Bush and Clinton years, and then fell dramatically around the time of Obama's 2008 campaign. Obama promised to change the culture in Washington, and make government more responsive to society. He actively promoted the idea of a government that plays a positive role in the lives of Americans.

The data shows Democrats bought into this principle in 2009, but considerably less so in 2013. Obama's presidency has been dogged by difficulties: The ObamaCare website that didn't work; the IRS agents who went after Obama's political opponents; the gunrunning scandal in which the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms shipped guns to Mexican drug cartels; the Edward Snowden revelations; the debt ceiling fights with Congress; and, perhaps most importantly, a sluggish economic recovery that was slow to gather steam despite a stimulus package worth over $800 billion. None of these things are necessarily Obama's fault and he still has plenty of time to turn things around, but it's hard to make people believe that government can work if the government you're leading is mired in difficulties.

Whether these fears of big government will continue to rise or will fall back to lower levels is an interesting question. The political climate is ever-changing, and fear of big government has risen and fallen over the last 20 years. On some issues — like fighting inequality — Americans across the political spectrum want government to do more. But this shift certainly doesn't look good for Obama's legacy. The president who promised to make government work is now governing a country where a majority of his own party fears the government.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

John Aziz is the economics and business correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also an associate editor at Pieria.co.uk. Previously his work has appeared on Business Insider, Zero Hedge, and Noahpinion.