Politics

The State of the Union Speech and Public Opinion

by Frank Newport, Jeffrey M. Jones, and Lydia Saad

Gallup reviews public opinion on 22 issues raised in State of the Union

PRINCETON, NJ -- Gallup looks at how a number of key points and policy proposals that President Barack Obama made in his State of the Union address Wednesday night relate to the views of the American people.

1. Hope for the Future

"I have never been more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight."

Most Americans are optimistic about the future of the country, but they have been more optimistic at other times in the past, generally when the economy was doing well.

2. Bank Bailout

"Our most urgent task upon taking office was to shore up the same banks that helped cause this crisis. … We all hated the bank bailout. I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal."

February 2009 polling showed that giving aid to U.S. banks and financial companies in danger of failing was the least popular of five different government steps to aid the economy. A majority of 59% of Americans opposed the idea of a bank bailout. The images of banks and bankers have also fallen significantly in recent years -- Americans' confidence in banks last year dropped to a record low (22%), as did the perceived honesty and ethics of bankers.

3. Economic Stimulus

"Because of the steps we took, there are about 2 million Americans working right now who would otherwise be unemployed. … The plan that has made all of this possible, from the tax cuts to the jobs, is the Recovery Act. That's right -- the Recovery Act, also known as the stimulus bill."

As Obama signed the $787 billion stimulus bill into law in February 2009, 59% of Americans were in favor of the legislation.

More recently, however, Americans seem to have doubts about the effectiveness of the plan. In August, fewer than half (41%) believed the stimulus plan was making the economy better, while the slight majority thought it was either having no effect (33%) or making the economy worse (24%). At that time, a slim majority also said the government should have spent less to stimulate the economy. Also at that time there was broad opposition to the government's passing a new stimulus bill (29% in favor and 65% opposed). Asked about the best way to create jobs last November, very few Americans mentioned more stimulus spending.

4. Economy Is Growing

"After two years of recession, the economy is growing again."

The majority of Americans continue to say the economy is getting worse rather than better -- although a greater proportion of Americans say it is getting better than did so when Obama took office. The percentage "getting better" is 38% today, compared with 18% in January 2009. The last time the majority of Americans said the economy was getting better was July 2004.

5. Jobs as No. 1 Focus

"Jobs must be our No. 1 focus in 2010."

The percentage of Americans mentioning jobs or unemployment as the nation's most important problem is double today what it was a year ago (22% vs. 11%) and now nearly ties mentions of the economy in general as the perceived top problem. Assessments of the job market are bleak and have been so for a long time. Only 9% of Americans say now is a good time to find a quality job. Gallup's Job Creation Index is essentially the same now as it was when Obama took office, with no sign of meaningful job growth.

6. Small Business

"We should start where most new jobs do -- in small businesses … I'm proposing that we take $30 billion of the money Wall Street banks have repaid and use it to help community banks give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat. I'm also proposing a new small-business tax credit ... Let's also eliminate all capital gains taxes on small business investment."

Americans have a much more positive view of small business than of big business. In fact, confidence in small business is second only to confidence in the military at the top of the list of Gallup's annual Confidence in Institutions assessment. Confidence in big business is the lowest of any institution tested. From a slightly different perspective, new Gallup research also shows that almost twice as many Americans have a positive view of small business as they do of big business (95% vs. 49%). More than 8 out of 10 Americans also agree that when small businesses make a profit, it is good for the U.S. economy.

7. Clean Energy

"We should put more Americans to work building clean energy facilities and give rebates to Americans who make their homes more energy-efficient."

In March 2009, Gallup found three-quarters of Americans (77%) in favor of the government's promoting energy production from alternative sources of energy. More recently, Gallup found a solid majority of Americans saying they had taken steps in the past year to make their homes more energy efficient, though most cited economic savings, not the environment, as the reason.

8. Bipartisanship

"I've been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious … I've been told that our political system is too gridlocked, and that we should just put things on hold for a while. … How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold?"

The percentage of Americans believing Obama has made "a sincere effort to work with the Republicans in Congress" slid to 60% in September 2009 from 80% who expected Obama to make a sincere effort just after the November 2008 election. At the same time, barely a third believed either caucus in Congress was making the same effort toward the other party.

9. Nuclear Power

"We need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country."

Americans generally support the expanded use of nuclear power as a means of producing electricity. Last year, 59% of Americans -- a new high -- were in favor of more use of nuclear power.

10. Offshore Drilling

"It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development."

Americans have in the past supported drilling in areas -- including off the coasts of the United States -- that the U.S. is not currently using as a means of oil production.

11. Climate Change

"I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change."

Just a little over half of Americans believe the effects of global warming have already begun. Well under half say global warming will pose a threat in their lifetimes. Most Americans believe that the threat of climate change or global warming is generally correct or underestimated. But last year, the percentage who said the threat was exaggerated increased to 41%. Also last year, Americans' reported concern about global warming dipped after showing a steady increase from 2005 to 2008.

12. Export and Trade

"Third, we need to export more of our goods. Because the more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America. So tonight, we set a new goal: We will double our exports over the next five years … To help meet this goal, we're launching a National Export Initiative."

In recent years, Americans have been more likely to view foreign trade as a threat to the economy from foreign imports than as an opportunity to increase U.S. exports. Before that, however, Americans generally took the latter view.

13. Elementary and Secondary Education Act

"We need to invest in the skills and education of our people. … we [will] renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act."

Americans' top two recommendations in 2009 for how to improve K-12 education in the U.S. are improving the quality of teachers (17%) and focusing more on basic curriculum (10%). Four percent mentioned improving standards for testing students, while 3% recommended abolishing the No Child Left Behind Act (which relies on extensive standardized testing).

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act includes No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Gallup research from August showed that of those who are familiar with NCLB, a large majority say either that it has had no effect on students' education or that it has made it worse. A bit of better news for supporters of NCLB is that parents of school-aged children are a little more positive about the impact of the law than are those who do not have children in school. Of potential importance is the fact that those who claim to be very familiar with NCLB are most strongly convinced that it has had a negative impact.

14. Healthcare Reform

"We still need health insurance reform. … We are closer than ever to bringing more security to the lives of so many Americans. … I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, the process left most Americans wondering, "What's in it for me?" … I want everyone to take another look at the plan we've proposed. … Here's what I ask Congress, though: Don't walk away from reform. … Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people."

The healthcare reform Congress worked on in 2009-2010 struggled to gain public backing. While access to healthcare and affordability remain the most urgent health problems in the country in Americans' eyes, less than a majority now say that ensuring all Americans have healthcare is the government's responsibility. Fifty-five percent of Americans favor shelving the current plan and beginning work on a new plan. Americans who object to passing healthcare legislation are not just focused on "what's in it for me" but rather are most likely to object on the grounds of costs and too much government involvement.

15. The Federal Deficit

"… a massive fiscal hole in which we find ourselves. … So tonight, I'm proposing specific steps to pay for the trillion dollars that it took to rescue the economy last year. … I've called for a bipartisan fiscal commission [to focus on the deficit]."

Americans are concerned about the amount of money the government is spending, and say President Obama's proposals to address the problems facing the country require too much spending. In fact, 58% of Americans disapprove of his handling of the deficit -- tied with healthcare for his most negative issue rating. The deficit has increased as a problem in Americans' eyes, but still ranks well behind the economy, unemployment, and healthcare. Obama has gotten poor marks for his handling of the federal budget deficit.

16. Distrust in Government

"We face a deficit of trust -- deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years."

Only 17% of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in Congress, almost at the bottom of a list of institutions tested in Gallup's annual update of confidence in institutions. This lack of trust, however, has not been "growing for years" in a straight linear fashion. Confidence in Congress is actually up slightly from the previous two years, and is no worse than it was in the 1991-1994 time frame.

17. Lobbyists

"We have to take action … to end the outsized influence of lobbyists."

Americans have no love lost for lobbyists. In 2007, when lobbyists were included in Gallup's annual ratings of the honesty and ethics of professions for the first time, they were at the very bottom of the list. Additional research that year found that Americans believed that presidential candidates should refuse lobbyist money.

18. Campaign Finance and Lobbying Reform

"With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests … to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests."

It is highly likely Americans agree that elections should not be bankrolled by special interests. What's unclear is whether Americans agree that this will be the effect of the recent Supreme Court decision, which gives companies broad latitude in funding independent expenditures on behalf of specific candidates. Gallup polling last fall found Americans in general agreement with the court's rationale in this case, which is that campaign spending is a matter of free speech. However, by 52% to 41%, more think limiting campaign donations ought to be the greater priority over protecting this First Amendment right.

19. Iraq

"As a candidate I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as president. We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August."

Roughly 6 in 10 Americans believe sending troops to Iraq was a mistake. In September -- several months after Obama had issued his plans to speed up the United States' withdrawal from Iraq -- Gallup found 56% of Americans approving of Obama's handling of the Iraq situation, his highest issue rating of seven tested in that survey.

20. Haiti

"Our destiny is connected to those beyond our shores. … That's why, as we meet here tonight, over 10,000 Americans are working with many nations to help the people of Haiti recover and rebuild."

Most Americans (63%) are committed to the United States' remaining in Haiti as long as necessary to ensure that basic services are restored and life is back to normal for the people there. Nearly three-quarters (73%) think the U.S. is doing enough to respond to the crisis, and, in line with this, the slight majority is opposed to increasing the number of Haitian immigrants allowed into the U.S.

21. Don't Ask, Don't Tell

"This year I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are."

Although 50% of Americans were opposed to lifting the ban on gays serving in the military at the time President Bill Clinton instituted the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy in 1993 (43% were in favor), 69% in November 2009 said that openly gay men and women should be allowed to serve in the military.

22. Immigration

"We should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system -- to secure our borders and enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation."

Americans returned to a tougher stance on immigration in 2009, with a higher percentage saying immigration should be decreased than said this in 2008, and a smaller percentage calling immigration a "good thing" for the country.

In 2007 -- amid a major push for immigration reform laws in Washington -- Gallup found 20% generally in favor requiring illegal immigrants to leave the country and 78% in favor of some sort of path to citizenship.

Survey Methods

Gallup surveys 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, every day and also conducts additional surveys. In most cases, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±2 to ±4 percentage points. For detailed survey methods on any results reported here, please visit the original story.

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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