For the well-duh file. USA Today and Gallup discover that 22 percent at one end of the spectrum want government out of their lives and 20 percent at the other end endorse ever-expansive government, and most people in the middle "endorse government activism on a range of issues . . . but doubt the competence of government to deliver results effectively and efficiently."
The philosophical debate over what the government should do may soon be joined by a practical debate over what the government can afford to do. A report is due Dec. 1 from a bipartisan commission charged with addressing the deficit, including the costs of Social Security and Medicare. The costs of those benefit programs are expected to explode as the huge Baby Boomer generation retires.
Most of those surveyed acknowledge a disconnect: 56% say most Americans demand more from the government than they are willing to pay for with taxes.
More than three of four also see a day of reckoning approaching. They predict that the costs of entitlement programs will create major economic problems for the United States in the next 25 years if no changes are made.
Recognizing the issue isn't the same as reconciling it, however. Raise taxes to address it? Fifty-six percent say no. Cut benefits instead? Sixty-six percent say no. Just 12% say both steps should be taken.
A showdown on the size and role of government may come next year when the federal budget is debated between the Obama White House and a Congress that is likely to include new members elected on a promise to reduce the government's reach.
You know the old saying, "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die." The stuff we've been arguing so far is just the preliminary sparring. When the real, practical "this problem must be solved" moment comes, we'll find out who's who.