- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama faces a historically low level of public trust in the government that will limit his ability to fully implement a progressive agenda up front, said a new study released Tuesday by two former Clinton administration officials.

But if he successfully deals with the economic crisis during his first 100 days, they said, he will gain a mandate for Democratic ideas on energy policy, climate change, and healthcare.

“If you are facing a public where only 17 percent of public thinks the government does the right thing, you have to enact some confidence building measures to have the trust from them to support larger and less incremental change,” said William A. Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Clinton.

Mr. Galston and Elaine Kamarck, who oversaw the Clinton administration’s “reinventing government” program, presented mixed numbers that said trust in the government is at an all-time low but also said that there is more openness to “bigger government” than there has been in almost 20 years.

“The events since the middle of September have been an economic 9/11,” Mr. Galson said at a briefing organized by Third Way, a think tank comprised largely of former Clinton Democrats.

“Within broad limits the people have authorized the administration to everything within its power to prevent a financial meltdown and limit the severity of a recession,” he said.

But Mr. Galston and Ms. Kamarck cautioned that public approval of government intervention in the economy does not necessarily translate into broader support for big government across the board.

“In recent years, anti-government ire has cooled. But that does not mean there has been a huge surge in support for its opposite,” Mr. Galston said. “What it means is that there is a larger middle that is much less sure than it once was that smaller government is the answer to all our problems but is not yet convinced that bigger government is the answer.”

Mr. Galson, who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said recent polling has shown that many Americans have serious concerns that the government will spend too much to address the economic crisis and end up raising taxes as a result.

Trust in government has been at low levels since the Watergate-era, Ms. Kamarck said, falling below 50 percent in 1974 and never rising above that level except for a 56 percent mark in 2002.

The previous low mark before trust hit 17 percent in 2008 was in 1994, two years into the Clinton administration, when it was at 21 percent.

Mr. Galston and Ms. Kamarck said that Mr. Clinton’s administration ran aground when it tried to push then-first lady Hillary Clinton’s national healthcare plan, despite clear signs that the country was not ready for it.

They recommended a series of actions that they said Mr. Obama could take to gain the public’s trust, including review and reform of earmark spending and no-bid contracting, an emphasis on open and transparent government and the use of performance measures that lead to cuts in ineffective programs, the elimination of special interests and the inclusion of Republican officials in high-level positions.

“Trust shapes the limits of political possibility,” Ms. Kamarck said. “It’s what allows a president to move forward.”

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