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No Love for Gov on Presidents’ Day

As our nation observes Presidents’ Day there’s not much good news regarding how citizens view government at the national level – from Congress, to the White House, to federal agencies.

This is a sobering and troubling reality, especially for feds.

  • Presidents’ Day is supposed to be “a time of patriotic celebration and remembrance,” according to History.com.
  • “Presidents’ Day is now widely viewed as a day to celebrate all presidents past and present,” says Voice of America.

But there does not appear to be much real celebrating taking place — perhaps other than for the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, for which the holiday was originally designated.

Although historical societies, associations and academia will stage positive Presidents’ Day civic events, most Americans don’t have anything positive to say according to a plethora of national polls.

Why the Sour Mood?

It’s interesting that today’s toxic level of political and civic discourse coincides with historically low approval ratings for Congress and Uncle Sam.

In fact, it appears that the nature and tone of the conversation about the presidency and federal government has plummeted into the abyss.

The proliferation of digital and mobile technology may be partially to blame, including the blogosphere and social media. New and emerging high-tech tools of communication have only added to sensationalism, skepticism and cynicism about the role and function of government by giving the media and citizens a louder bullhorn.

Gone are the days when the president and Congress were viewed with respect and admiration by the general populace.

To the contrary, in recent years the fever pitch of partisan rancor and fed bashing has spread like a cancer. This ugly strain of partisanship and ideological purity has pervaded today’s political debates and conversations to a level which may be unprecedented.

All Presidents Deserve Respect

There’s also a serious problem in America when recent presidents of both parties are treated with disrespect and disdain by members of Congress, partisan political groups, the news media and other elements of society.

The fact that some extremist segments of the citizenry still do not believe President Obama was born in America, for example — despite a multitude of facts to prove it — is outrageous and unfathomable.

The fact that some extremist segments of the citizenry still question this president’s religion is likewise deeply insulting and disrespectful to the holder of highest office in America.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a fringe element of anti-federalist absolutists — including many libertarians — for whom having smaller government is not nearly enough.

These folks want no central government, period.

Their apparent solution to make government more functional is to eliminate it at the national level and return all federal power to the states.

This raises important questions:

  • How will trust be rebuilt in government as an institution going forward?
  • How do we change the national conversation from a culture of public disdain and distrust of government to one of general respect and admiration?

These questions need to be answered soon.


* All views and opinions are those of the author only.

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Profile Photo Ryan Arba

David, these are great questions that need to be addressed. I’m not sure what the solution is. If we could only channel the amount of energy people place in partisan discord into more productive causes…

Profile Photo Scott Kearby


I am not sure this is a new phenomenon … the bad behavior of politicians has been talked for quite a while. Just google Mark Twain or Will Rogers and you will get a flavor of it. It may be more blunt and in-your-face now & is certainly more evident with the internet and constant barrage of sound bites, tweets, blogs, posted comments, etc. but the underlying reason for the lack of trust and respect is that most politicans have not earned it. You don’t deserve trust or respect, you have to earn it by your actions and those actions have to square with your words. It is easy to lose trust or respect, but to rebuild it requires lots of time and repeated instances of “walking the talk”.

Profile Photo Amber Hansen

We are more likely to talk about our bad experiences. This simple tenancy makes it very difficult to make a mistake in such a public forum as federal politics. Our leaders are judged every time they speak, offer an opinion in writing or simply put themselves forward to present the next big bill or for a campaign. There is no pleasing everyone and we must maintain the right to criticize our leaders, respectfully. The media, traditional and social, contributes to negativity because a scandal sells. Unfortunately, when our leaders are judged for personal or political reasons, so too are the public servants who work under them. Most public servants are faceless to the citizenry and are easily lumped in with whoever happens to be at the helm for the moment; they become unnoticed collateral damage.

I believe the only way to make a change is for the people of the blogosphere, and media, to commit to thoughtful, constructive and respectful criticism and support of our leaders. We must also choose leaders who will be accountable for their actions. And once elected we must take pains to hold them accountable for their policy as well as their moral character. Easier said than done.

David B. Grinberg

Ryan, Scott and Amber:

Thanks for the comments. You all make excellent points and your feedback is very much appreciated. I think one of the answers is also to conduct a major overhaul of our campaign finance system and election process.

For example, publicly funded campaigns could be mandatory, media could provide free and equal time to candidates, lobbyists and special interests could be eliminated, and citizens could play a more integral role in the process through virtual town halls and leveraging other new/evolving technology.

Fixing the system would result in electing lawmakers who have the people’s best interests in mind rather than their own or that of their party/donors/lobbyists, etc.

Another important factor is making voting mandatory. Today only a small percentage of eligible voters actually bother to vote. This gives more power to the local parties and undue influencers.

Of course this appears to be a Utopian dream. Perhaps one day…

Profile Photo Dale M. Posthumus

Let’s start with perspective. Americans are upset with the Federal Govt, but see that as represented mostly by Congress, some by the President. Americans have a favorable view of Federal employees – 62% positive accoding to Pew Research Center. Then, Pew’s polling also shows Americans’ “frustration” with Congress has been fairly stable going back to 1997 – within a range of 52-60%, although “anger has about doubled – from 8-10% to 19-20%. Pew also notes that who is frustrated when is quite partisan – more Repubs are frsutrated when the Prez is Dem and more Dems are frustrated when the Prez is Repub.

Second, I would not want to live in your utopia.

- Only publically funded campaigns: how would you keep elections from boiling down to huge lists of people running for office? How would you pay for it? I am open to reform, such as online and immediate publication of all donations, individual or organization, regardless of size. I believe there is a role for public funding, but no private funds is also bad.

- No lobbyists or special interests: So, no National Education Association, National Right-to-Life, National Organization for Women, National Rifle Association, American Farm Bureau, Human Rights Campaign, American Association of Retired People, Service Employees International Union, American Medical Association, National Association of Manufacturers, Code Pink, NAACP, Children’s Defense Fund, Consumer Federation of America, Biotechnology Industry Organization, etc. These are all special interests who lobby govt heavily. We want participation, not banishment.

The Constitution gives us the right of freedom of assembly and a redress of grievances. To say it can only be done individually is, IMHO, neither practical nor desirable for an active democracy/republic.

- Mandatory voting: So, you want to drive people into the voting booth who do not want to be there? You think those people will then suddenly become good citizens and vote seriously? It will only create more mischief, at a rate that influence elections. People are voting by choosing not to vote. Improving the way govt works (your basic premise), including perceptions, will do far more good toward bringing people to the polls than will vote. One country I know of that did that was the Soviet Union, and it was a joke.

I believe the primary system has done more to advance partisanship and reduce the quality of many elected officials than the party convention system has done. Talk about the boom in money in politics! The primary system requires huge amounts of money to campaign across the US at least a year in advance of the first primary. Let active party members decide who will be their candidates, then let the people decide who gets elected.

Two other points: 1) holding public officials accountable and 2) moral character. Both of these are virtually uncontrollable human nature. Pew and others have often noted that despite the frustration with Congress, people tend to be happy with their own representatives, frustrated with someone else’s. Again, tends to follow a partisan line as to who is in power. I am all for politicians, public employees, private employees, teachers, teens, and kids maintaining a high moral character. But, who will vote for someone of significantly higher moral character who supports policies you or I oppose? Not very many of us.

Although reforms are important, the only true way to change the way things are is by getting involved for the causes you support, whether that is with a political party, a candidate, or an organization of like-minded people (yes, a special interest). After all, it takes a special interest to lobby to work towards the utopia you imagine.

David B. Grinberg

Dale, thank you as always for sharing for valuable insights. Your important contribution to this discussion is appreciated.

I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers — far from it. However, I have worked in the federal gov for two decades in various high-level capacities. I believe this experience has given me a pretty clear sense of what isn’t working and what may be helpful to reform our severely broken and highly toxic political/election system.

I’ve seen the process up close and personal from the inside out — including work in the White House, Congress, federal agencies, presidential and congressional campaigns, presidential transition office, etc.

Thus while I agree with some of your points, I must respectfully disagree with others. I think you are correct about the primary process, as well as the moral character and holding public officials accountable.

However, I stand by my contentions that:

1) Too many lobbyists and special interests corrupt the political/election process. In my view most lobbyists are unethical and don’t play by the rules, so to speak. Thus I’m not advocating eliminating them altogether, put promulgating tighter regulations that take huge sums of money/donations out of the equation — which leads me to the next point…

2) Private money in public campaigns gives a distinctly unfair advantage to corporate America, special interests and the top 1% of the wealthiest Americans — to the detriment of middle class and poor voters. This is even more true and troubling in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case. Many European countries have successfully solved this problem through public financing of elections with specific rules and regulations governing that process.

3) Mandatory voting for those eligible to vote — especially via the internet and new digital/mobile tech — would definitely increase the percentage of Americans voters. I believe this would have a beneficial effect on the political process by fostering greater civic engagement.

It’s shameful that America, the world’s greatest democratic form of government, has such a low voter participation rate. Meanwhile, people in other countries are summarily denied the right to vote and are dying in the streets for the same or similar voting rights too many Americans take for granted.

Again, Dale, thank you so much for contributing to this important discussion in which all views need to be heard.

Profile Photo Dale M. Posthumus

David, just a quick comment on public funding. The Library of Congress issued a very interesting comparison of the electoral financing of several countries (Germany, France, UK, Australia, and Israel). All allow private funding along with the public financing. Some allow corporate contributions, at least one bans trade union contributions. Some place limits on contributions, at least one places an overall party limit. Only one of these countries (I believe) has primaries. In the rest, candidates are chosen by the parties in conventions, caucases, or other internal means. In most, public financing is based on eelction results; that is, the more votes you got in the previous election, the more money you get in the next one. Most also appear to limit your ability to obtain public funds based on a minimum electoral support (usually around 0.5%). France will reimburse half if you gain 5% of the vote. All are primarily parliamentary systems, with only France having a separate election for the executive.

So, these countries all allow private money in elections campaigns in different ways. None have a pure public funding approach. As I said before, I believe there is a role for public financing of elections along with private funds. You may find in this report policies you may think good for our system, since the rules vary significantly.