What is the best role of government? That’s a question at the heart of policy battles across the country and in Washington. Whether the issue is paying for entitlement programs or regulating school lunches, Americans can go back and forth on whether the American government should step in or step back.

For the past two decade, Gallup has asked Americans questions on the government’s current activity level. Currently, 54% think the government is “trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses.” However Americans are more evenly divided on the role of government with 35% indicating that they favor a limited government that provides only the most basic government functions, 32% preferring a government that takes active steps in every area it can, and the remaining one-third falling in the middle.

This isn’t too surprising. When we consider voting patterns, there are hardcore and committed voters at either end of the spectrum but a broad swath in the middle that may be swayed depending on the issue at hand.

Furthermore, Americans’ opinions of government’s activity are influenced by which party is in the White House. An activist president is likely to sway Americans especially during economic crisis, social turmoil, or foreign unrest.

Here’s more:

… Americans' opinions appear to be influenced by which party is in the White House, and whether the president prefers a more active or a less active government. During the two Republican administrations, an average of 49% of Americans said the government was doing too much, compared with 55% during the two Democratic administrations.

Americans' preferences for government activity are highly related to their opinions of whether the government is currently doing too much. Those who prefer a limited government role on the 5-point scale overwhelmingly say the government is doing too much now (86%). At the same time, most of those who prefer an active government, 74%, say the government should be doing more right now. Those without a clear preference on this matter tilt in the direction of saying the government is currently doing too much.

Americans as a whole do not have a clear preference for whether the government should take an active role or a limited one. The public generally divides into equal thirds in favoring an active government, a limited government, or something in between. This division has been consistent during the five years Gallup has asked Americans to indicate their preferences.

What does this tell us? Not much.

What it doesn’t tell politicians though is that they have a "mandate" to expand the role and reach of government. As Gallup notes, divided preferences on government activity are not a clear direction in deciding whether public solutions are the best course of action to address the nation’s biggest problems.

And it shouldn’t be. We have a document that established what the role and reach of government should be. It is especially thorough in explaining the branches of government and the reason they were created. If you guessed that document is the Constitution, you guessed correctly. This document doesn’t change at the whim of public opinion or with the level of activism among our leaders.

Perhaps as a nation we would find government intruding in our lives less if we consulted the Constitution more. Happy belated Constitution Day!