Analysis: A referendum on big government

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Republicans sweep to control of the House riding a wave of anti-government sentiment.

When you have to organize a rally called "Government Doesn't Suck," it's probably time to acknowledge you've lost the public debate.

That's what happened last week, when the good folks at social networking site Govloop felt the need to mount a counterattack to the relentless drumbeat of criticism that the government and the people who work for it have endured during this seemingly endless electoral season of discontent.

"With anti-government sentiments at record highs, we feel your pain," the rally's organizers said. "We know you don't suck, you know you don't suck, so let's let the world in on this little secret."

Unfortunately for those on the pro-government side of the fence, the secret did not get out on election night. Republicans, riding a wave of anti-government sentiment, were projected late Tuesday to sweep to control of the House of Representatives and make significant gains in the Senate, and exit polls showed that voters' disillusionment with government was one key reason. ABC News reported that 73 percent of voters described themselves as at least dissatisfied about the way the federal government is working.

Fully 26 percent of Americans said they were downright "angry" about government's performance, up from 19 percent the last time the GOP swept to control of Congress in 1994.

That was no surprise, given the results of recent polling. Last month, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that more than 70 percent of Americans used negative terminology when asked to describe the federal government in one word or phrase. Just 10 percent responded positively.

This week, the Washington Post posed a comparable question to a cross-section of Americans, and got similar responses. "Self-achieving," "freedom-robbing," "misguided" and "spoiled" were among the terms tossed out. Even those responses that could be characterized as positive weren't exactly ringing endorsements of the bureaucracy: They included words like "necessary" and "working." ("Doesn't suck," indeed.)

Of course, much of the discontent about government in general was aimed at politicians in particular. The message to federal civil servants was more mixed. A Washington Post poll in October found that more than half of respondents believed that federal employees were overpaid. Nevertheless, of those who reported that they had interacted with a fed recently, three-fourths said the experience was positive.

This might seem like good news, but it also suggests that turning around public opinion about the government and its workforce won't be easy. Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, in issuing a progress report this week on the Obama administration's Accountable Government Initiative, said when it comes to making government more efficient, responsive and transparent, "we're putting points on the board." But the fans in the stands don't seem to be noticing -- at least not yet.

One school of thought suggests people aren't actually mad at the bureaucracy, the president or maybe even legislators, but that these groups are simply the target of frustration about the slow pace of economic recovery. "If unemployment were, at say, 7 percent and trending downward, voters probably would see things in a more optimistic light," wrote Will Marshall of the left-wing Progressive Policy Institute in the Huffington Post on Tuesday. "What's oppressing the electorate is not the specter of big government, it's the hangover from the 2007-2009 economic crisis, the worst to hit America since the Great Depression."

Of course, that kind of electoral oppression has led to abstract, inchoate rage about a faceless government that seems unable to fix systemic economic problems. It'll take more than Obama initiatives to improve customer service, make government data available online and streamline the hiring process to turn that around.

Some Republicans secretly might hope that Americans don't actually expect them to deliver on the promise to fix the economy and slash federal spending and bureaucracy. Because making good on a pledge to tame big government is among the toughest mountains a politician can climb. The last time the GOP ran an effective anti-government campaign in 1994, its newly minted congressional leadership launched a Hundred Days effort to eliminate, privatize and consolidate whole agencies and Cabinet departments, slash employment at agencies, trim federal pay increases and scale back retirement benefits. But big government turned out to be very difficult to tame. It won't be any easier this time around.