More Confidence in Government, Less in Business

In the months since Sept. 11, polls have shown Americans feeling exceptionally high levels of confidence in their government. A new Harris Poll is typical, showing a doubling since last year in the number of people who have a “great deal of confidence” in the White House (to 50 percent from 21 percent) and a record-high level of such confidence in U.S. military leaders (71 percent, vs. 44 percent last year). Congress and the Supreme Court also have enjoyed gains. But this outpouring of faith in public institutions has not spilled over to the private sector. The number of people expressing great confidence in the leaders of major companies has slipped from 20 percent last year to 16 percent now, the lowest rating since 1993. Leaders on Wall Street have suffered a similar drop (from 23 percent to 19 percent). Put all these numbers together and they show a big shift in the ratio of respect Americans allot to the public and private sectors. No doubt the recession has played a role, and the Enron affair hasn’t helped. Just 6 percent of respondents to a new Los Angeles Times poll said they have “a lot” of confidence in big business “to do what is right for their employees”; 21 percent had “none.” In a way, the business sector’s image problems reflect the fact that people set high standards for it. A Wirthlin Worldwide survey finds Americans have an expansive view of “corporate citizenship,” encompassing the treatment of employees, assistance to schools, support for medical research, contributions to the arts, etc. Nor do they believe corporate do-gooding is incompatible with responsibilities to shareholders. Rather, 91 percent of Wirthlin’s respondents subscribed to the statement, “It is possible for companies to find a balance between making a profit and giving back to society.”