The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll has found that President Trump’s approval ratings are lower than those of any of the past 11 presidents at the same point in their presidencies, going all the way back to Dwight Eisenhower. Only 40 percent of those surveyed in mid-April approve of Trump’s performance, while 54 percent disapprove. To compound the bad news for Trump, his disapproval rating among independents is as bad as it is among the population at large—as the Journal notes, “he risks losing the nation’s political middle ground.”
But another finding in the poll was just as eye-opening, if not as well-noticed: Fifty-seven percent of Americans believe government should be doing more “to solve problems and help meet people’s needs,” the highest percentage since the question was first asked, in 1995. Back then, only about 30 percent of those surveyed believed government should do more to help Americans, and less than 45 percent thought so as recently as 2010.
This is a remarkable reversal and another telling example—along with Democrat Jon Ossoff’s near win of a congressional seat in heavily Republican Georgia, along with the GOP’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act—that Americans want something far different than what Trump is offering them. His cynical promise to make government work again by eliminating regulations and social programs is not cutting it. Americans want government to do what it started doing in the New Deal.
Loss of faith in government has been the foundation of disappointing economic progress and the unfair distribution of income since the 1970s. But small government was never the answer, because the “free market” cannot provide America a fair and prosperous economy on its own. It certainly cannot handle the complexities of health care.
Back in the 1970s, Jimmy Carter professed himself a fiscal conservative. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan devoted himself to reducing the size of government, cutting taxes to force reductions in social spending—to “starve the beast,” as Milton Friedman put it—even as he raised military spending markedly. Big corporations were allowed to get bigger as anti-trust policy was immobilized, labor regulations were loosened or went unenforced, and probably the worst of the financial-deregulation bills, the Garn–St. Germain Depository Institutions Act, was passed, which led to the crash of savings and loan banks in Reagan’s second term, requiring a major federal bailout.
These policies were the beginning of decline, not the “morning again in America” that Reagan followers, and perhaps most Republicans to this day, believe. Wages stagnated and income inequality started its rise to the levels of the Roaring Twenties. Big finance became outsized and channeled investment to corporate takeovers, leveraged buyouts, and wasteful speculation that eventually led to the 2008 crash. Huge corporations came to dominate markets and set monopolistic policies in health insurance, pharmaceuticals, banking, telecommunications, and high technology to an extent they hadn’t done since at least the 1920s, and maybe even the late 1800s. The minimum wage was rarely raised, so it fell far behind the cost of living.