5 takeaways: What Americans want from government reform

As 2021 comes to a close, President Biden can point to some achievements and plenty of obstacles in his bigger government, more services agenda. NYU Wagner Professor Paul Light’s new GovLab analysis suggests that Biden must take action toward government reform or risk a one-term presidency. Here are five takeaways from Professor Light’s analysis.

1. A slight gain in public support

Demand for major government reform has abated since Trump left, but the demand for a bureaucrat overhaul is still above the 50 percent mark.

The question for Biden: Will more government spending allay public demand for reform?
The question for Trump: Will his volatile style push demand back up?

Figure 1: The demand for government reform, 1997- October 2021
As the following bullets show, where Americans stand on reform depends on who sits in the White House:
•In Autumn 2012 with Obama headed for a second term, 65 percent of Republicans favored very major reform, compared to 41 percent of Democrats
•In 2016 with Obama finishing his second term, 77 percent of Republicans favored very major government reform, compared to 40 percent of Democrats.
•In 2020 with Trump running for reelection, 70 percent of Democrats favored very major reform, compared with just 44 percent of Republicans.
•In 2021 with Biden in the White House, 65 percent of Republicans now favored very major reform, compared with 42 percent of Democrats.

2. Smaller government

Americans remain deeply divided between bigger and smaller government, but the Trump-base has a slight edge in the percentage of Americans who support a smaller government that provides fewer services. The question is whether Americans will trust Trump to fix the government agencies he worked so hard to break.

Figure 2: Support for a bigger or smaller government, 1997-October 2021

3. Shifting philosophies on government reform

Trump’s anti-government base of dismantlers lost a third of its support since the 2016 election, while Biden’s pro-government base of expanders increased by a quarter. Although Trump has the edge among the dismantlers, he does not have a strong position among the streamliners who oppose radical reforms.

Figure 3: The four philosophies of government reform

4. Neither Trump nor Biden can win a majority in 2024 without help from other groups

Trump needs help from streamliners who want a smaller government and major reform, while Biden needs help from the rebuilders who want reformers who want bigger government but thinks the federal government needs significant reform

Trump’s plan for government reform is the same today as it was in 2016--cut, cut, and cut some more, while Biden best rebuttal is a promise to streamline the federal bureaucracy as the baby boomers retire during the coming decade. Their departure provides a once-in-an-epoch opportunity to flatten the federal bureaucracy and recruit new talent.

Figure 4: Federal breakdowns from George W. Bush to Biden

5. Address government breakdowns

Trump set the modern record in the number of breakdowns on a president’s watch, but the number of breakdowns on Biden’s watch has increased in recent months with rising public concerns about testing shortages and the economic effects of the supply-chain disruption. Biden can blame the problems on Trump to some extent, but he needs an agenda for fixing the hard and messy problems he now faces.

Areas Of Impact