04/04/2011 12:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2011

Hate the Forest, Love the Trees

Several recent polls have revealed a puzzling paradox. On the one hand large proportions of the public have a negative opinion of several things -- government spending, the health care reform bill or recent government legislation -- when viewed as a whole. On the other hand majorities or pluralities have positive opinions of most of the component parts. They want to cut government spending but don't want to cut most government programs. They dislike the recent health reform bill but like most of the things in the bill. They give the government negative marks for its legislative record over the last two years but approve of most of the bills that were passed. It seems to be a case of "hate the forest but love the trees."

Government Spending

Several surveys have reported that large numbers of people want to cut government spending, a cause dear to the heart of many Republicans and Conservatives and especially The Tea Party. But a recent Harris Poll that asked people about 20 types of government spending found that majorities of the public want to cut just a few of them, and they account for only a very small fraction of spending, such as foreign aid, spending by (unspecified) regulatory agencies, the space program, subsidies to business and federal welfare spending.

At the same time very large majorities are opposed to cutting the biggest (and many economists argue the most unsustainable) programs, Social Security, health care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and Federal aid to education, while substantial, if smaller, majorities oppose cutting revenue-sharing with states, federal highway programs, jobs programs, mass transportation, pollution control, and the food stamp program. Substantial pluralities also oppose cuts in spending on housing programs, defense, farm subsidies and scientific research.

Recent Legislation

Another Harris Poll, conducted in late January, found a sizable plurality giving negative ratings to the "legislation that was passed by the last Congress as signed into law by the President." And yet when asked about the seven best known bills signed by President Obama, large majorities of those who were familiar with them strongly approved of five of them, with the public was split for and against the other two. Full 88% approved of the First Responders health care bill; 73% approved of the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts and unemployment benefits and 68% approved of the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" bill for gays and lesbians serving in the military. Clear but smaller majorities approved of the ratification of the START 2 nuclear arms treaty and the financial regulation bill.

Furthermore, members of the public who were familiar with them were equally divided for and against both the health care reform bill and the stimulus package.

Health Care Reform

Since the health care reform bill was passed the polls, including a recent Harris poll, have shown many people who want to repeal it because they believe it is a government takeover, socialism, an expansion of big government, and will lead to higher taxes and rationing. And yet, when presented with a list of the most important provisions of the bill, majorities of the public wanted to keep, rather than repeal, five elements. Pluralities wanted to keep five other items. A majority of the public favored the repeal of only one item -- the "individual mandate" requiring people to buy health insurance.

How do we explain these findings and the apparent paradox?

Pollsters need to remember that it is much easier to measure public opinion than to explain it. We know that only minorities follow politics closely or know very much about either legislation that is passed or the specifics of government programs that do not affect them personally. It also true that rhetoric is often more powerful than information, that ideology often trumps substance and that partisanship usually trumps almost everything. So the individual trees may look beautiful if we can see and focus on them, but the forest still looks threatening and ugly.