Politics

The State of the Union Speech and Public Opinion

by Frank Newport

A public opinion review of 19 issues raised in President Obama's 2011 address

PRINCETON, NJ -- Gallup reviews public opinion on 19 issues raised in President Obama's 2011 State of the Union address.

1. Bipartisanship

"New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all -- for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics."

Americans support the general idea of bipartisanship and cooperation across party lines. They are more likely to align themselves with a "compromise to get things done" position than a "stick to principle" position when asked where they stand on a 5-point scale anchored by these two options.

Americans strongly desire that their political leaders work together. They want President Obama to work to get things done with Republicans even if it's not exactly what Democrats want. They also want Republican leaders in Congress to work with Obama and Democratic leaders to pass new legislation that both parties can agree on.

Americans are not optimistic that things will get better, however. Half say the government will be about the same now that the Republicans are in control of the House. Americans are also not convinced that the intermingling of Democrats and Republicans sitting in the House during the State of the Union address signaled a new era of cooperation.

2. Economy Improving

"We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again."

The majority of Americans continue to say the economy is getting worse rather than better -- although the proportion of Americans who say it is getting better is now higher than at any time since last spring, and much higher than in 2009 when Obama took office.The percentage "getting better" is now 40%, compared with 19% in January 2009.

Gallup's Economic Confidence Index, which takes into account current economic assessments as well as views of the direction of the economy, has been at a three-year high in recent weeks.

3. Worry About Jobs

"I've heard it in the frustrations of Americans who've seen their paychecks dwindle or their jobs disappear -- proud men and women who feel like the rules have been changed in the middle of the game."

Americans are more likely to name jobs or unemployment as the nation's most important problem than any other issue. The percentage mentioning jobs is slightly higher today than it was a year ago (29% vs. 22%) and is more than twice as high as it was in January 2009 when Obama took office.

Americans' assessments of the job market are barely improved from last year. Only 13% say now is a good time to find a quality job, compared with 9% in January 2010, and 13% in January 2009.

American workers, however, do see a more positive picture at their places of employment in terms of hiring trends. Today, 29% of workers say their company is hiring, while 19% say their company is laying people off. In January 2009, the same numbers were 24% and 27%, respectively.

4. Investing in Clean Energy

"We're telling America's scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we'll fund the Apollo projects of our time."

Gallup in March 2009 found three-quarters of Americans (77%) in favor of the government's promoting energy production from alternative sources of energy.Gallup has also 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. From a slightly different perspective, Americans overwhelmingly favor new legislation that would provide incentives for using solar and other alternative energy sources.

5. Eliminate Oil Company Subsidies

"We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's."

Almost two-thirds of Americans in January 2011 said they favored a new energy bill that would expand drilling and exploration for oil and gas. Additionally, in 2009, Americans were slightly more likely to favor increasing the government's financial support and incentives for producing energy from traditional sources such as oil and gas than they were to favor decreasing such government support.

At the same time, Gallup's annual update on the image of business and industry sectors shows that the oil and gas industry has the most negative image of any of a list of sectors tested -- suggesting that efforts to reduce subsidies for oil companies would not be met with a large public outcry.

6. Replace No Child Left Behind With "Race to the Top"

"And Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that's more flexible and focused on what's best for our kids."

Americans generally appear to favor revision of No Child Left Behind more than its total elimination. Sixteen percent of Americans in a January 2011 Gallup poll favor eliminating No Child Left Behind totally, while 41% say it should be kept, with major revisions. Whether the "Race to the Top" approach qualifies as a major revision is unknown.

Americans in general support the idea of federal involvement in education.

Previous Gallup research from August 2009 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. 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. Those who claimed to be very familiar with NCLB are most strongly convinced that it has had a negative impact.

7. Teacher Respect and Training

"Let's also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child's success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as "nation builders." Here in America, it's time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones. And over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math."

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%). Americans also generally have high regard for the honesty and ethics of teachers.

8. Illegal Immigration

"Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. And I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws, and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult. I know it will take time. But tonight, let's agree to make that effort."

Americans give a relatively low priority to illegal immigration. Thirty percent say is it extremely important priority for the new Congress, putting it 12th on a list of 15 issues. Only 6% mention it as the most important problem facing the country today.

Given a choice, Americans have a slight preference for halting the flow of illegal immigrants into this country rather than dealing with illegal immigrants already in the country.

9. Expelling Young Illegals

"And let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation."

Americans are opposed to a plan that would "give some illegal immigrants living in the U.S. a path to legal status," by a 55% to 43% margin.

Americans generally favor rather than oppose a law that would grant legal status to illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children if they join the military or attend college -- the major thrust of the DREAM Act legislation proposed in Congress last year.

10. Invest in Infrastructure

"We'll put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We'll make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment, and pick projects based [on] what's best for the economy, not politicians."

Given a choice, Americans are least in favor of generally increasing stimulus spending as a way of dealing with the U.S. economy, and much more in favor of reducing the deficit, increasing taxes on the wealthy, and cutting taxes in general.

11. Overhaul Corporate Tax System

"I'm asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field. And use the savings to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years -- without adding to our deficit."

It is unclear whether Americans favor lowering the corporate tax rate, given that more than 6 in 10 feel that corporations pay too little in federal taxes.

12. Improve New Healthcare Law

"Now, I have heard rumors that a few of you still have concerns about our new healthcare law. So let me be the first to say that anything can be improved. If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better or more affordable, I am eager to work with you."

Most Americans favor making changes in the healthcare law passed last year, including 24% who say it needs major changes, 29% who say it needs minor changes, and 32% who would like to see it repealed entirely. Only 13% would keep it as it is.

Healthcare is third most likely to be mentioned as the "most important problem" facing the country, although well behind jobs and the economy.

13. Freeze Annual Domestic Spending for the Next Five Years

"I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years."

This proposal received mixed reactions in a Jan. 26, 2011, poll when compared with the Republican plan to go further and cut back government spending. Thirty-nine percent supported Obama's proposal, while 41% supported the Republican alternative.

In general, it is unclear how much priority Americans put on reducing spending. The deficit has increased as a problem in Americans' eyes, but still ranks well behind the economy, unemployment, and healthcare in terms of mentions as the most important problem facing the country.

14. Reducing Healthcare Costs, Including Medicare and Medicaid

"This means further reducing healthcare costs, including programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are the single biggest contributor to our long-term deficit."

Only a quarter of Americans are satisfied with the "total cost of healthcare in this country," making it reasonable that Americans would favor an effort to reduce healthcare costs in general.

When Americans are asked what the most urgent health problem facing the country, cost comes in second behind access.

Americans, however, are strongly opposed to cutting government spending for Medicare, which suggests that there would be opposition to efforts to reduce healthcare costs if that meant a reduction in benefits for Medicare.

15. Strengthen Social Security for Future Generations

"To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations."

This recommendation is very general, which makes it harder to match with American public opinion. Recent polling does show that almost two-thirds (64%) of Americans say Social Security should not be cut as part of an effort to cut government spending.

This is despite the fact that 60% of Americans in previous polling -- and a higher proportion of younger Americans -- do not believe Social Security will ever pay them a benefit.

Other Gallup polling last year found agreement with the general principle that the major entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare will create major economic problems in the years ahead if no changes are made to them.

In terms of ways of fixing Social Security, and assuming that there is no change for those 55 and older, Americans are most in favor of the rich either paying more into the system, or getting less out of the system when they retire. A majority of Americans oppose the two most obvious fixes: increasing Social Security taxes in general, or reducing Social Security benefits in general.

16. Increase Taxes for Wealthiest 2% of Americans

"And if we truly care about our deficit, we simply can't afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. Before we take money away from our schools or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break."

Most research shows that Americans approve of the idea of increasing taxes for the wealthiest Americans.

17. Simplify Individual Tax Code

"In fact, the best thing we could do on taxes for all Americans is to simplify the individual tax code. This will be a tough job, but members of both parties have expressed interest in doing this, and I am prepared to join them."

Three-quarters of Americans in January said they favored a bill that would "overhaul the federal tax code."

Taxes are, however, not a high-priority issue when Americans are asked to name the most important problem facing the country.

From Americans' personal viewpoints, there is less negativity about federal taxes than might be expected. The percentage of Americans who say the amount of taxes they personally pay is "fair" is at 59%. Just under 50% say the amount they pay personally is too high, one of the lower readings on this over the decades.

18. Reorganize the Federal Government to Make It More Competitive

"In the coming months, my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America. I will submit that proposal to Congress for a vote -- and we will push to get it passed."

Gallup has not asked Americans specifically about merging, consolidating, or reorganizing the federal government. Given the generally low esteem in which the average American holds the federal government, however, it is a good estimate that the public would favor almost any reorganization that made the government work better.

Gallup's annual update on Americans' ratings of business and industry sectors shows that the federal government has the second-most-negative image out of 25 sectors tested (only the oil and gas industry is lower).

Americans were also highly likely to volunteer negative responses when asked last year to indicate the first thing that came to mind when they heard the phrase "the federal government." These negative images included "too big," "confused," "corrupt," and "incompetent."

19. Bring Troops Home From Afghanistan

"This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home."

Americans generally support the idea of withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. In a November poll, a majority of Americans said either that troops should be withdrawn in accordance with a timetable that would have all troops out by the end of 2014, or that troops should be withdrawn sooner. A January poll showed that Americans favored speeding up "the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan" by a 72% to 25% margin.

At the same time, Americans remain positive about the overall decision to involve U.S. troops in that country, with a majority saying such involvement was not a mistake. This stands in contrast to U.S. military involvement in Iraq, which Americans do consider to have been a mistake.

January 2011: Support for and Opposition to a List of Actions Congress Could Take This Year

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