AP Poll: Public has little faith in government’s problem-solving ability

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Snow covers a wall near the U.S. Capitol after a blizzard pummeled the east coast from Washington, D.C. to New York City Saturday. An AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found more than 6 in 10 respondents expressed only slight confidence -- or none at all -- that the federal government can make progress on the problems facing the nation in 2016. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Snow covers a wall near the U.S. Capitol after a blizzard pummeled the east coast from Washington, D.C. to New York City Saturday. An AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found more than 6 in 10 respondents expressed only slight confidence — or none at all — that the federal government can make progress on the problems facing the nation in 2016. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

WASHINGTON — As the first voting nears in the presidential race, most Americans have little or no confidence in the federal government to confront what they see as the country’s most important priorities, according to a national survey.

The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, conducted in December, found more than 6 in 10 respondents expressed only slight confidence — or none at all — that the federal government can make progress on the problems facing the nation in 2016.

Terrorism edged health care as the issue most often mentioned — each by about one-third of those questioned — when people were asked to volunteer the issues they believe Washington should address this election year.

The polling suggests an electorate more focused on the economy and domestic affairs than on foreign policy. Two-thirds of respondents included an economic issue on their priority list, and about 4 in 5 named a domestic policy other than the economy.

In addition to those who mentioned terrorism, nearly half added another foreign policy matter, and immigration was the next most frequent topic raised.

Perhaps most vexing for the dozen or so candidates vying to succeed President Barack Obama, the poll indicates widespread skepticism about the government’s ability to solve problems, with no significant difference in the outlook between Republicans and Democrats.

“They can’t even seem to get together and pass anything that’s of any importance,” said Doris Wagner, an 81-year-old Republican from Alabama who said she’s “not at all confident” about seeing solutions in 2016. “It’s so self-serving what they do,” said Wagner, who called herself a small-government conservative.

In Texas, Democrat Lee Cato comes from a different political perspective but reached a similar conclusion. She allowed for “slight” confidence, but no more. The 71-year-old bemoaned a system of “lobbyists paid thousands upon thousands of dollars to get Congress to do what they want” for favored industry. “They aren’t doing anything for you and me,” she said.

Joe Flood, a GOP-leaning independent, said he sees government’s inner-workings in his job as a federal contractor. A 49-year-old resident of the District of Columbia, Flood described the executive branch as a bureaucratic behemoth and the legislative branch as an endlessly partisan wrangle. “That’s why government can’t get anything done,” he said.

Along with terrorism and health care, respondents were most likely to cite immigration (29 percent), education (25 percent) and unemployment (24 percent) as priorities.

Democrats and Republicans were about equally likely to mention unemployment, though there was a racial disparity. Almost half of black respondents mentioned the issue, compared with only a one-fifth of whites.

A predictable partisan divide was apparent in other issues.

Republicans were more likely than Democrats to cite terrorism as a priority, 42 percent to 30 percent. Immigration was mentioned by 43 percent of Republicans and 21 percent of Democrats.

The poll was taken after the Paris attacks that were attributed to the Islamic State group and a shooting in San Bernardino, California, blamed on IS sympathizers.

One-fifth of Republicans mentioned the federal budget deficit, compared with less than a one-tenth of Democrats, with a similar divide on the importance of taxes.

Democrats were more likely to consider guns as public policy priority, along with education, crime, racial problems, the environment and climate change.

Many of those breakdowns reflect the separate debates now playing out in the presidential race.

The GOP field, led by boisterous candidates such as Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, characterizes the Obama administration as an irresponsible, profligate manager of taxpayer resources, and unable to ensure national security and protect U.S. interests amid international threats and strife.

The leading Democratic candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, are focused more directly on economic matters, both framing themselves as defenders of the middle class. Sanders rails against the disproportionate economic and political power of the nation’s wealthiest individuals and corporations.

While the candidates may reflect the priorities of their respective bases, several poll respondents said they haven’t necessarily heard anything that improves their outlook.

Flood said Trump or Sanders would offer “the most radical change” from the status quo. “But I don’t like what either of them is saying, really,” he explained, adding that “95 percent of Congress will get re-elected anyway.”

Even among optimists there is a caution.

“America is a resilient nation,” said Kentucky independent Waylon Cain, who says he’s “slightly optimistic” in government’s ability to solve problems. “You’ve got every kind of walk of life here. We all have experiences in different areas. I don’t think at any point in time we’re headed down a hole we can’t get ourselves out of.”

Yet when the 27-year-old looks to the presidential field, “there’s not anyone I see that makes me say, ‘He is the man. He is going to lead our nation in the right direction.'”

The AP-NORC Poll of 1,042 adults was conducted Dec. 10-13, 2015, using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.

Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods, and later interviewed online or by phone.

Barrow reported from Atlanta.

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