Americans enter 2014 with a profoundly negative view of their government, expressing little hope that elected officials can or will solve the nation's biggest problems, a new poll has found.
Half say America's system of democracy needs either "a lot of changes" or a complete overhaul, according to the poll by the AP-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research. Just one in 20 says it works well and needs no changes.
Americans, who have a reputation for optimism, have a sharply pessimistic take on their government after years of disappointment in Washington.
The percentage of people saying the nation is heading in the right direction has not topped 50 in about a decade. In the new poll, 70% lack confidence in the government's ability "to make progress on the important problems and issues facing the country in 2014".
The poll comes about two months after partisan gridlock prompted the first government shutdown in 17 years.
But people feel somewhat better about their personal lives. Most have at least some confidence that they will be able to handle their own problems in the coming year. A narrow majority say they would do a better job running the country than today's leaders in Washington.
Local and state governments inspire more faith than the national government, according to the poll, with 45% at least moderately confident in their state government and 54% expressing that much confidence in their local government.
When asked to name up to 10 world or national problems they would "like the government to be working on" in 2014, Americans chiefly cite issues that have dominated - and often flummoxed - the White House and Congress for five years.
Health care reform topped the list. It is likely, however, that those naming the issue include both opponents and supporters of President Barack Obama's sweeping health overhaul.
Jobs and the economy were next, followed by the nation's debt and deficit spending.
Some issues that draw ample media and campaign attention rank lower in the public's priorities. No more than 3% of Americans listed gay rights, abortion or domestic spying as prime topics for government action.
Regardless of the issue, Americans express remarkably little confidence that the government can make real progress.
For instance, 86% of those who called health care reform a top priority said they want the government to put "a lot" or "a great deal" of effort into it. But about half of them (49%) are "not at all confident" there will be real progress, and 20% are only "slightly confident".
This yawning gap between public desires and expectations is one of the poll's most striking findings. Even on an issue completely within the government's control, the budget and national debt, 65% of those who called it a priority say they have no confidence in the government's ability to fix it. Another 20% are only "slightly confident".
When it comes to the issues people cited as most important to them, 80% want the government to spend significant effort working on them. Yet 76% say they have little or no confidence the government will make real progress.
But asked generally about the role of government in society, the poll finds Americans divided on how active they want government to be. Half say "the less government the better" but almost as many (48%) say "there are more things that government should be doing".
On the economy, an area historically driven by the private sector, the poll finds a clear public desire for active government. Fifty-seven per cent of Americans say "we need a strong government to handle today's complex economic problems".
Even among those who say "the less government the better," 31% feel the nation needs a strong government to handle those complex problems.
Americans do not feel terribly optimistic about their own economic opportunities. Although 49% say their standard of living surpasses their parents', most are broadly pessimistic about the opportunity to achieve the American dream. And they are mixed on whether people like them have a good chance to improve their standard of living.
Few are hopeful that the pieces are in place for the government to improve. About half are pessimistic about the country's ability to produce strong leaders generally. And 61% are pessimistic about the system of government overall and the way leaders are chosen.
The AP-NORC Centre poll was conducted online from December 12-16 among a random national sample of 1,141 adults. The survey was conducted by GfK using KnowledgePanel, a probability-based internet panel designed to be representative of the US population.