POLLS show large numbers of Americans subscribing to some pretty devastating criticism of public officials. Exaggeration is undoubtedly built into these responses - it's common whenever people vent their frustrations - but the scope of the complaints still should give us pause. A survey taken by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman last October displays the marked public negativism. Respondents were given a variety of words and phrases, and asked which do and which don't describe ``government officials.'' ``Mainly concerned about getting reelected'' (90 percent), ``heavily influenced by special interests'' (84 percent), and ``out of touch with the average person'' (81 percent) got the highest percentages saying they described official conduct. Conversely, ``honest'' (65 percent), ``far-sighted'' (58 percent), and ``unafraid to make tough decisions'' (58 percent) were the three depictions on the list which solid majorities said did not characterize government leaders.
Americans' criticism of their officials is hardly unbroken. When it favors a policy and believes actions effecting it are well carried out, the public is as ready today to give high marks as it ever was. For example, President Bush's handling of the Gulf crisis is now backed by between 80 and 90 percent of the populace; and, as a result, his presidency wins the approval of an overwhelming majority.
Nonetheless, the public's underlying assessment of the performance of its officials is negative. The criticism extends to local, state, and national leaders alike.
It is sometimes argued that officials get low marks because Americans remain more inclined to doubt the enterprise of government itself than are citizens of any other democracy. Certainly the idea that ``the polity'' - the aspirations and institutions of public life - extends far beyond the bounds of ``the state,'' remains a distinctive mark of American life. Though we turn to government more today than in the past, we still look to it less than do most other publics. Studies done in recent years by the International Social Survey Program document this. For example, the ISSP surveys in 1985 found just 45 percent of Americans, compared to 59 percent of the British, 77 percent of West Germans, and 82 percent of Italians, agreeing that ``the government should provide a job for everyone who wants one.''