Americans by double-digit margins say the federal government is doing too little – not too much – to deal with the health and economic repercussions of the deadly pandemic that has now infected more than one million people across the country.
In the era of coronavirus, Big Government is back.
Americans by double-digit margins say the federal government is doing too little – not too much – to deal with the health and economic repercussions of the deadly pandemic that has now infected more than one million people across the country, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll finds.
At least for now, concerns about an exploding federal deficit and possible government overreach have been overwhelmed by the imperative to address the moment. The appetite for an activist government is the highest it has been in decades, and it comes as Congress already has committed an unprecedented amount, nearly $3 trillion, in relief. Another emergency spending bill is in the works.
Gary Tidball, 52, a Republican from Overland Park, Kansas, who was called in the poll, has been relying on himself since he got his first job at age 16. But in recent days he has applied for unemployment benefits, Small Business Administration aid and a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program to help the security consulting firm he owns.
"I haven't ever taken a dime of assistance," he said. "Never in my life thought that I would have a need to do that, but I am glad that it was there."
He added: "This is something we've never, ever, ever had to deal with."
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The debate over the proper size and role of the federal government dates to the nation's founding, and changing views on that front in more modern times shaped first the FDR coalition and then the Reagan Revolution that followed it. It was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who in 1996 famously declared in his State of the Union address, "The era of Big Government is over."
One month earlier, in December 1995, 60% of Americans told a Gallup Poll that the government was trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses; just 32% said the government should do more to solve our country's problems.
Now, in response to the same question in the new USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll, 50% say the government should do more; 40% say it is trying to do too much. That is the strongest endorsement for the government doing more since Gallup began to ask the question in 1992. Call it the coronavirus effect: Just five months ago, in September 2019, Americans by 49% to 47% were inclined to say that the government was doing too much.
The only time support for a bigger government was close to the current level was in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when more activism was backed by 50% to 41%.
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In follow-up interviews, those surveyed struggled to describe how big a government they thought was appropriate, or precisely what it should do.
"They're not doing enough when it comes to looking out for everybody," said Mercedes Nazarian, 29, a political independent from Savannah, Georgia, who supports Trump. Since the barbecue restaurant where she works had to close its bar and lay her off, she has applied for unemployment benefits and is using food stamps to feed her two daughters, ages 4 and 1.
But she has mixed feelings about the government: "They could be doing more but then they already try to control so much. I could go both ways."
Asked about what the federal government has done to solve the health problem posed by the coronavirus, Americans by nearly 5-1, 50% to 11%, said that it was doing too little, not too much. About 33% said it was doing the right amount.
Asked about what the federal government was doing to solve the economic fallout from the pandemic, those surveyed — by more than 4-1, 45% to 10% — said it was doing too little, not too much. Just over 33% said it was doing about the right amount.
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“The poll shows that when people need help, they can quickly change their ideas about ‘big government,' " said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. "With the pandemic threatening lives and livelihoods, we are seeing more people willing to listen to government officials and take advantage of assistance than we’ve seen in our lifetimes.”
There were significant partisan differences.
Eight of 10 Democrats thought the government was doing too little to solve the health problems of the coronavirus, while more than 6 of 10 Republicans thought the government's actions had been about right. That said, only 1 in 5 Republicans thought the government was doing too much – notable in a party that traditionally has advocated smaller government.
And worries about the national debt and federal deficit?
Asked about the most important issues affecting their vote for president, that concern ranked ninth on a list of 12 issues, precisely where it fell in the USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll taken last December.
The latest survey, taken by landline and cellphone from April 21-25, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
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Asked about Trump, a majority of those surveyed, 52%, disapproved of the job he's done in handling the coronavirus crisis; 45% approved. The intensity of feeling tilted toward his critics: 31% "strongly" disapproved, compared to 19% who "strongly" approved.
"He knew about it back in January and did nothing about it," said Leon Fossett, 54, a Democrat from Severn, Maryland. "He called it a Democratic hoax, and now he's encouraged people to ingest disinfectant. He's not listening to the experts."
Fossett blasted Trump's leadership on the issue, although he credited the Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, with doing "a great job."Getting back to normal
Fossett, a social worker with a county mental-health agency, has seen catastrophic consequences from the coronavirus among the families he helps. "We get a lot more calls from people in panic mode," he said. "Domestic violence is way up."
He's not optimistic that things will return to normal anytime soon. "I don't think we get back to normal until we have a vaccine, and that's a year away," he said.
In the survey, 7% predicted things would get back to normal in the next one or two months; another 7% said things would never get back to normal. Most Americans fell somewhere between those extremes: 21% said three to six months, 30% six months to a year and 23% one to two years. Another 8% predicted it would take more than two years.
There was a party divide even on pessimism and optimism. Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to predict that things would return to normal within the next six months, 44% compared with 17%. Democrats were more than twice as likely as Republicans to say it would take a year or more, 39% compared with 17%.
"I don't know what normal means, because there is a virus out there and it's not like we're going to eradicate it," said Kate Elliott, 33, a Democrat from Cincinnati who works in marketing. "It's not like we're ever going to go back to the way it was before it was out there."
Her two preschool-age daughters in particular miss spending time with their grandparents, she said, though she has tried to explain to the older one the concept of social distancing and the need to keep six feet apart from others. "The 4-year-old frequently says, 'I wish we could be zero feet apart.' "
Tidball, the Republican security consultant from Kansas, said he thinks a "new kind of normal" might be only a few months away. "Sometime in August, once we really hit summertime, the face masks will go away" and businesses like his will be able to operate again, he predicted.
"But quite frankly, to get back to what we were in 2019? I think it may take years."
SEARCHABLE MAP: Coronavirus death rates and cases for every US county: https://interactives.courier-journal.com/projects/cv19/map/
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