Americans More Upbeat About U.S. Defense Readiness

by Lydia Saad

Shift mainly due to confidence surge among Democrats

PRINCETON, NJ -- After four years of declining public confidence in the nation's military preparedness, Gallup's annual World Affairs survey documents a sharp reversal. Currently, 54% of Americans say the country's national defense is about right, up from 41% a year ago.

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As a corollary to the recent increase in public contentment with the nation's defense, the percentage of Americans saying national defense is not strong enough has dropped from 47% to 37%.

An additional 6% of Americans now say the nation's defense is stronger than it needs to be. Thus, combined with the 54% saying national defense is about right, 6 in 10 Americans believe the nation's defense is at least adequate, if not too great.

The primary reason for the positive turnaround in public perceptions about national defense since last year is that Democratic confidence on the issue has surged. A year ago at this time, with former President George W. Bush still in office, only 37% of Democrats thought U.S. defenses were about right. Today, with President Barack Obama at the helm, that figure is 64%.

At the same time, there has been no change in the percentage of Republicans who say national defense is about right, and a smaller, 10-point increase among independents.

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Evaluating Defense Spending

A separate question in the Feb. 9-12 poll asked Americans whether they believe the government is spending too much, about the right amount, or too little for national defense and military purposes.

While the majority of Americans still fall into the dove or hawk category when it comes to defense spending (saying spending is either too high or too low), more are satisfied with spending compared to a year ago: now 41%, up from 30%.

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The poll was conducted prior to Obama's Feb. 24 address to Congress, in which he promised to crack down on waste in the defense budget and to end the war in Iraq.

In this case, Democrats are almost entirely responsible for the uptick in public support for the current level of government defense spending. The percentage of Democrats saying defense spending is about right grew from 16% in 2008 to 40% today, compared with a four-point increase among independents and a one-point decline among Republicans.

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Despite Democrats' movement toward the center on this question, they remain much more likely than Republicans to believe the government is spending too much on defense: 43% vs. 11%. By contrast, while nearly half of Republicans think defense spending is about right, a substantial minority (39%) say it is too little.

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Bottom Line

Public confidence in the nation's defense is higher today than it was a year ago, largely because Democrats have become more positive on the question. Now, a majority of all three partisan groups say the U.S. national defense is either about right or too strong: 72% of Democrats, 58% of independents, and 52% of Republicans.

Americans are a mixed lot when it comes to the scope of defense spending. However, in contrast to a year ago, when the largest segment said the government was spending too much on defense (44%), today the plurality say the government is spending the right amount (41%). Again, Democrats are mainly responsible for the shift because of their increased support for the current level of defense spending.

Democrats' heightened satisfaction with the status quo on these issues may be a direct reflection of their confidence in Obama to curb defense spending and rebalance national defense policy in ways they agree with. Alternatively, it may simply reflect a "natural" tendency for members of a new president's party to feel more positively about the actions of government when someone of their own party is in the White House. However, Gallup polling on the same defense issues in 2000 and 2001 found no comparable changes in the views of Republicans, spanning the presidential transition from Democrat Bill Clinton to Republican George W. Bush.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,022 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 9-12, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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