Reagan Right on Government

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In his first inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan delivered a line succinctly capturing the sentiment that elected him: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

A generation later, that attitude still resonates with a solid majority of Americans. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 59% of voters agree with Reagan, and just 28% disagree.

Support is found across a wide range of political and demographic groups. Sixty-seven percent (67%) of men agree with Reagan, as do 52% of women. A majority of voters in all age and income groups agree.

The only demographic group to disagree with Reagan’s statement are those who identify themselves as politically liberal. Just 35% of liberals agree that government is the problem, but 46% disagree. Moderates embrace the Reagan view by a 61% to 25% margin, and conservatives are even more enthusiastic.

Republicans overwhelming embrace Reagan’s view, and 55% of unaffiliated voters agree as well. Democrats are a bit less enthusiastic, but 49% agree with Reagan while 34% disagree.

Those who plan to vote for Barack Obama this November are evenly divided: 44% agree with Reagan, and 40% do not. Supporters of John McCain agree by a 74% to 16% margin.

The fact that most Americans still agree with Reagan helps explain the ongoing public resistance to the bailout bill and the fear of many voters that the federal government will do too much rather than too little to deal with the current economic situation.

The lasting resonance of Reagan’s quote was recently noted in a column by Arianna Huffington who wrote "Twenty-seven years later, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and seven-plus years into the reign of Bush and Cheney, Reagan’s anti-government battle cry should be on trial. But, stunningly, it is not."

Huffington believes the candidates should be asked about Reagan’s view in their next debate.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin paraphrased Reagan’s view approvingly during the vice presidential debate. "Patriotic is saying, government, … you’re not always the solution," Palin said. "In fact, too often you’re the problem so, government, lessen the tax burden on our families and get out of the way and let the private sector and our families grow and thrive and prosper."

During his term in office, former President Bill Clinton was forced to acknowledge the reality defined by Reagan when he famously declared "the era of big government is over."

In his 1981 speech at another time of economic turmoil, Reagan also took a swipe at the elitism embraced by many in Washington. "In this present crisis," he declared, "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price."

Scott Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Reports, has been an independent pollster for more than a decade. Rasmussen Reports is an electronic publishing firm specializing in the collection, publication, and distribution of public opinion polling information.