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Posted April 3, 2007

Trust, in government as elsewhere,
fast to lose and slow to regain

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- When Billy Joel scored a Top Ten pop hit in 1986 with the song "A Matter of Trust," he was singing about a romantic relationship, even if it dealt with "a constant battle for the ultimate state of control."

But trust has proven time and again to be a precious commodity. Once squandered it is hard to regain.

The U.S. bishops know that confidence can be lost. After the clergy sex abuse scandals broke five years ago, polls measured sharp decreases in confidence. LeMoyne College's annual Contemporary Catholic Trends poll of Catholics had measured the bishops' approval ratings at 83 percent in fall 2001. The following spring, after the scandal surfaced, it had dropped 15 points to 68 percent. It would dip to 59 percent the following year before the slide was halted.

The latest poll, to be released in April, will show the bishops with 70 percent approval ratings, according to Matt Loveland, an associate sociology professor who is the principal investigator for the survey.

Now, it's the federal government's turn. Attorney General Alberto O. Gonzales Jr. and the White House have been the focus of questions over political motivations behind the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. The Iraq War has been a source of contention among Americans since it started four years ago. The revelations of indifferent care, lousy living conditions and military red tape facing wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington brought a fresh dose of distrust.

The last poll to report higher approval than disapproval ratings for President George W. Bush was a 50-47 advantage among registered voters in a December 2005 Diageo/Hotline poll. The last time Bush's disapproval rating was less than 10 percentage points more than his approval rating was a 48-43 deficit last September in a Cook/RT Strategies survey of registered voters. The first time Bush's approval rating dipped below 30 percent was a 28 percent rating in a CBS poll in January; 64 percent -- more than twice as many -- disapproved of his job performance.

The Gallup Poll has tracked Bush's approval ratings, from a high of 90 percent less than two weeks after the terror strikes of Sept. 11, 2001, to a low of 31 percent last May; its March 23-25 poll had Bush at 34 percent.

Of the five presidents in the past 50 years who were re-elected to a second term, Bush -- in Gallup's surveys -- ranks below Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower at the same point in their presidencies, and above only Richard Nixon.

When one part of the government is faring badly, it's usually reflected in the chief executive's approval ratings, said John Zogby, president of the Zogby International polling firm.

"He's the lightning rod, he's the symbol," Zogby said. "When things are going well, the guy at the top gets all the credit. When things are going badly, he gets all the blame."

Zogby affirmed that trust and voter confidence are hard to regain once lost. He recalled telling the Houston Chronicle daily newspaper two years ago, when Bush's approval ratings slid under 50 percent: "It's kind of like virginity. It's tough to get it back once you've lost it."

An associate political science professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, John McAdams describes a "dribble-down" effect from political leaders to the rest of government.

"If there are economic hard times, that would matter," McAdams said, although the relative good times of the current economy aren't boosting confidence in Bush. McAdams attributed Bush's low numbers to "the fact we're still in Iraq -- it has a negative impact."

Other issues may be more salient to political observers, but "Joe Six-Pack and Janey Wal-Mart, who aren't attentive, don't particularly care that Bush fired eight U.S. attorneys," he added. "They're cynical, and think that everything is political."

"I feel people trust government, but they just don't trust the Bush administration," said Lelia Roeckell, an associate professor in the history and political science department at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, N.Y.

"People's confidence in government depends on the personality of the politician," Roeckell added. People can be very cynical about the government but they can love a politician. There's that dynamic as well."

The dynamic plays itself out in the Catholic Church as well, Loveland said: "A lot of what people think of leadership depends on local leadership. People are always much happier with their parish priest than with the (U.S.) conference of bishops."

Roeckell believes Bush's polling numbers won't go up before he leaves office because U.S. troops will still be in Iraq then. Even so, according to Zogby, there's reason for hope.

"This system builds into it new elections, so there will be a new president," he said. "There are plenty of opportunities for renewal."