WASHINGTON -- Nearly 80 percent of Americans say they can't trust Washington and they have little faith that the massive federal bureaucracy can solve the nation's ills, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center that shows public confidence in the federal government at one of the lowest points in a half-century.
The poll released Sunday illustrates the ominous situation facing President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party as they struggle to maintain their comfortable congressional majorities in this fall's elections. Midterm prospects are typically tough for the party in power. Add a toxic environment like this and lots of incumbent Democrats could be out of work.
The survey found that just 22 percent of those questioned say they can trust Washington almost always or most of the time and just 19 percent say they are basically content with it. Nearly half say the government negatively effects their daily lives, a sentiment that's grown over the past dozen years.
This anti-government feeling has driven the tea party movement, reflected in fierce protests this past week.
"The government's been lying to people for years. Politicians make promises to get elected, and when they get elected, they don't follow through," says Cindy Wanto, 57, a registered Democrat from Pennsylvania who joined several thousand for a rally in Washington on April 15 -- the tax filing deadline. "There's too much government in my business. It was a problem before Obama, but he's certainly not helping fix it."
Majorities in the survey call Washington too big and too powerful, and say it's interfering too much in state and local matters. The public is split over whether the government should be responsible for dealing with critical problems or scaled back to reduce its power, presumably in favor of personal responsibility.
About half say they want a smaller government with fewer services, compared with roughly 40 percent who want a bigger government providing more. The public was evenly divided on those questions long before Obama was elected. Still, a majority supported the Obama administration exerting greater control over the economy during the recession.
"Trust in government rarely gets this low," said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan center that conducted the survey. "Some of it's backlash against Obama. But there are a lot of other things going on."
And, he added: "Politics has poisoned the well."
The survey found that Obama's policies were partly to blame for a rise in distrustful, anti-government views. In his first year in office, the president orchestrated a government takeover of Detroit automakers, secured a $787 billion stimulus package and pushed to overhaul the health care system.
But the poll also identified a combination of factors that contributed to the electorate's hostility: the recession that Obama inherited from President George W. Bush; a dispirited public; and anger with Congress and politicians of all political leanings.
"I want an honest government. This isn't an honest government. It hasn't been for some time," said self-described independent David Willms, 54, of Florida. He faulted the White House and Congress under both parties.
The poll was based on four surveys done from March 11 to April 11 on landline and cell phones. The largest survey, of 2,500 adults, has a margin of sampling error of 2.5 percentage points; the others, of about 1,000 adults each, has a margin of sampling error of 4 percentage points.
In the short term, the deepening distrust is politically troubling for Obama and Democrats. Analysts say out-of-power Republicans could well benefit from the bitterness toward Washington come November, even though voters blame them, too, for partisan gridlock that hinders progress.
In a democracy built on the notion that citizens have a voice and a right to exercise it, the long-term consequences could prove to be simply unhealthy -- or truly debilitating. Distrust could lead people to refuse to vote or get involved in their own communities. Apathy could set in, or worse -- violence.
Democrats and Republicans both accept responsibility and fault the other party for the electorate's lack of confidence.
"This should be a wake-up call. Both sides are guilty," said Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. She pointed to "nonsense" that goes on during campaigns that leads to "promises made but not promises kept." Still, she added: "Distrust of government is an all-American activity. It's something we do as Americans and there's nothing wrong with it."
Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican who won a long-held Democratic Senate seat in Massachusetts in January by seizing on public antagonism toward Washington, said: "It's clear Washington is broken. There's too much partisan bickering to be able to solve the problems people want us to solve."
And, he added: "It's going to be reflected in the elections this fall."
But Matthew Dowd, a top strategist on Bush's re-election campaign who now shuns the Republican label, says both Republicans and Democrats are missing the mark.
"What the country wants is a community solution to the problems but not necessarily a federal government solution," Dowd said. Democrats are emphasizing the federal government, while Republicans are saying it's about the individual; neither is emphasizing the right combination to satisfy Americans, he said.