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Is the era of small government over?

Polls show growing support for government doing more, but history offers caveat

Corrected, May 11 | Regardless of whether you agree with his agenda or not, it is now clear that President Joe Biden does not merely want to tinker with the economy or with social welfare spending. He wants to go big.

If you are a mainstream Democrat, you probably think the president’s agenda is moving in the right direction (though more programs to help the less affluent would always be welcomed). If you are a conservative, all you can see is more spending, more government programs and higher taxes on business, which, you think, will hurt economic growth.

“After presenting himself during last year’s campaign as a ‘transition candidate’ to follow the volatile tenure of Donald J. Trump, Mr. Biden has since his inauguration positioned himself as a transformational president,” Peter Baker wrote in The New York Times after Biden’s April 28 speech to a joint session of Congress.

“The succession of costly proposals amounts to a risky gamble that a country deeply polarized along ideological and cultural lines is ready for a more activist government and the sort of redistribution of wealth long sought by progressives,” Baker continued.

Over the last decade, I’ve written often about the NBC News survey question about the role of government — “government should do more to solve problems/government is doing too many things …” (Most recently in my June 30, 2018, column.)

The question and its responses always seemed to me to foreshadow significant electoral changes, since the United States essentially has one party promoting smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation and “traditional values,” and another party that believes government can and must help the needly, regulate big business, work toward a “fairer” economic and tax system, and value and promote diversity.

If the public thinks that the government should “do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people,” the Democratic message should resonate. If Americans think that the government is doing “too many things better left to businesses and individuals,” the GOP message should carry the day.

And that’s how it has usually worked.

The “role of government” question in the April 17-20 NBC News survey included previous responses to that question going back to 1997. It showed that in June 2020 an unusually large 57 percent of registered voters thought government should do more, while only 38 percent agreed that the government is doing too many things.

Historically, that’s a huge gap.

The responses to that question suggested voters were ready for a more activist government, which is what Democrats offered in 2020.

In October 2010, weeks before the midterm election produced a Republican tsunami, 50 percent of registered voters said government was doing “too many things,” while only 45 percent believed the government was not doing enough.

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In polling conducted during 2007 and 2008, after almost eight years of George W. Bush in the White House, either a plurality or a majority of respondents said that government should do more.

But here is the “But.”

While Democrats like to point to recent “role of government” numbers, which show a solid majority (from 55 percent to 58 percent) of Americans want the government to “to do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people,” future responses to that question could flip quickly.

The more government does, the more an increasing percentage of Americans are likely to feel that it is doing “too much.” The news coverage alone, combined with social media chatter, is likely to move public opinion.

Of course, Democrats now note that the public is quite happy with the Biden agenda. But even a successful Biden presidency is likely to cause some Americans who are currently calling for “more government” to reassess their position.

The normal ups and downs of government — policy failures, personnel problems, new controversies and the inevitable second-guessing of any president — could well boost the “government is doing too many things” numbers and deflate the “government should do more” responses.

That is simply the way things usually work.

Obviously, there are reasons to wonder whether things have changed so much politically that the “role of government” survey question no longer provides the predictive guidance it once did.

President Donald Trump certainly did many things that resonated with those who thought government was doing too much. But his populism was not traditional “small government,” except in his support for tax cuts and deregulation of business.

Many Trump supporters thought government should do more, whether in international trade policy or when muscling individual corporations that, for whatever reason, Trump didn’t like.

Moreover, Trump drew support from down-scale white voters who wanted to fight corporate America’s support for diversity in the workplace and concern with economic inequality in the country.

The current Republican civil war and the extremism in the party also raises questions about whether voters will follow the usual course.

Even if they want smaller government, will they really want to put the party of Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in charge?

It’s always temping to read short-term trends in public opinion into dramatic shifts. And sometimes those shifts are real. But swing voters remain an important force in national and key state elections, and many of them are conflicted about the role of government.

Democrats have to hope that the unusually large majority now saying they think the government “should do more” remains high, but they should also be aware that history suggests it won’t.

This column has been corrected to reflect the name of the NBC News Survey.

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