Another week, another controversy in official Washington.
At the moment, 35 percent of voters consider recently exposed National Security Agency surveillance efforts as the most serious. The Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservatives is No. 2 on the list, followed by concerns about the Obama administration's handling of the incident in Benghazi last fall in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya was murdered.
The Justice Department's secret probe of reporters' phone and email records is seen as the top concern by only 9 percent.
Competing for attention with the controversies are ongoing policy disputes over immigration, gun control, and full implementation of the national healthcare law.
While each of these stories has its own cast of characters and internal dynamics, it is now possible to identify a unifying theme.
President Obama, whose deeply held faith in government is unwavering, unintentionally provided that moment of clarity last week. In attempting to dismiss concerns about the NSA disclosures, he said, "If people can't trust not only the executive branch but also don't trust Congress and don't trust federal judges to make sure that we're abiding by the Constitution with due process and rule of law, then we're going to have some problems here."
We have a problem.
Just 30 percent of voters nationwide have that much trust in government officials when it comes to these surveillance efforts.
Only 24 percent now are confident that the federal government does the right thing most of the time.
This popular distrust of government is the theme that ties all the recent news stories together. It's driving all the current policy debates.
On immigration, there is broad popular support for comprehensive immigration reform. Most Americans believe legal immigration is good for the country, but most do not trust the government to enforce any provisions in the new law that would improve border security and reduce illegal immigration. Only 7 percent believe that enforcement is "very likely" to happen.
This is not just Republicans grumbling about Barack Obama in the White House. The same skepticism was there when George W. Bush was president. Unless the government does something to address the border problem, it will be there for the next president, as well. Because of that distrust, prospects for passing serious immigration reform this year are slim indeed.
Similarly with gun control, Americans overwhelmingly like the idea of requiring background checks for those who want to purchase a gun, but they are very suspicious of where the president and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg want to go from there. If voters were convinced their plan was for background checks and nothing more, it would have enjoyed broad popular support.
The president's healthcare law is facing the same challenge. New mandates will soon force people to buy more expensive insurance plans. Advocates say they're not really more expensive because they provide more coverage. But most Americans are uncomfortable with trusting the government to decide an appropriate level of coverage. They're also suspicious of all government cost estimates.
Many in Washington are frustrated by the public distrust. They dream of public relations programs to overcome it. What is needed, though, is for the government to change its behavior, so that it can earn the trust of the people it serves.
Scott Rasmussen is founder and president of Rasmussen Reports. He is the author of “Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System,” “In Search of Self-Governance,” and “The People’s Money: How Voters Will Balance the Budget and Eliminate the Federal Debt.” Read more reports from Scott Rasmussen — Click Here Now.