Barack Obama used to call himself a "hopemonger," mocking skeptics who thought the young presidential candidate was entirely too hopeful. No one would accuse him of that anymore. President Obama has done more than anyone else during the past two years to destroy trust in Washington.
His administration is the latest in a series of blows to the credibility of the system. First, there were the Bush administration failures in Hurricane Katrina and Iraq. Then, the financial collapse. And finally, a president who got elected promising a new, bipartisan way of doing business and a pragmatic approach to governance, who has catered to his own base in a mad rush to expand government.
In Washington, even a self-described hopemonger can't be trusted to tell us the truth. If Obama's job-approval rating is holding steady just below 50 percent, the standing of Democrats in Congress has collapsed, and faith in government -- at a time when Democrats have staked everything on expanding the state -- is scraping historic lows.
If Glenn Beck and the progenitors of the tea-party movement had conspired long ago to create a Manchurian Candidate of limited government -- a candidate who would entice the middle of the country with his beguilingly moderate rhetoric, then repel it with his vast governmental schemes -- they couldn't have found anyone more suited to the role than Obama. (Maybe this accounts for the famous "missing years" at Columbia University?)
According to a new Pew survey, Congress has its lowest favorable rating in a quarter-century. It declined by half -- from 50 percent to 25 percent -- just during the past year. The favorable rating of the Democratic Party fell from 59 percent to 38 percent during that same span, a low in Pew surveys.
Only 22 percent of people say that they can trust government almost always or most of the time, "among the lowest measures in a half-century." Favorable ratings for federal agencies have dropped "significantly." Fifty-six percent of people say they are frustrated with government, the same number as in October 1997, but 21 percent are angry with government, up from 12 percent.
Republicans account for some of this change; their distrust in government fluctuates wildly depending on which party is in power. But more Republican-leaning independents are angry with the government (37 percent) than conservative Republicans (32 percent). Many fewer Democrats trust government than in the late 1990s, and only 40 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of the Democratic Congress, "the lowest positive rating for Congress ever among members of the majority party."
How did Democrats fall so fast, and take perceptions of government down with them? If the weak economy has hurt, so has what they've done and how they've done it. Their two signature initiatives -- the stimulus and health care -- constitute massive expansions of government, passed on partisan votes in a sloppy, heedless rush. If Congress doesn't even know whether it eliminated its own health insurance in ObamaCare -- it's studying the matter closely -- how careful was it with yours?
There are two ways for a liberal Democrat to react to America's ingrained distrust of government. He can sneak up on the problem, controlling deficits as he increases targeted spending programs that will prove popular. This is the post-1994 Bill Clinton approach. Or he can try to shock the system, creating a flood of spending that can never be turned back. This is the Obama approach.
Although he can never be forthright about it. He had to portray the stimulus as a boost to private employment, and the health-care bill as an exercise in fiscal restraint. It's all the government aggrandizement, plus none of the honesty -- a formula for the backlash well under way.
"Obama Announces Plan to Restore Trust in Government" was the hopemongering headline of an Obama press release in 2007. In his famous Jefferson-Jackson Day speech in Iowa that year, he promised: "A nation healed. A world repaired. An America that believes again." So far, he's 0-3.