Post-State of the Union Analysis

Post-State of the Union Analysis

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

Where Americans stand on 16 issues President Obama raised in the State of the Union

PRINCETON, NJ -- Gallup data reveal how Americans' views line up with 16 specific issues President Obama raised in his 2012 State of the Union address.

1. Iraq

"For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq."

Three-quarters of Americans in October applauded Obama's decision to withdraw nearly all U.S. troops from Iraq by year's end, while 21% disapproved. This came after majorities of Americans in the prior six years consistently called the decision to send troops to Iraq a "mistake."

The decision to leave Iraq was not without controversy, as fewer than half of Republicans at the time (43%) favored it, while 52% were opposed. However, the vast majority of Democrats (96%) and independents (77%) supported it.

Also, several weeks after Obama announced his decision, a November 2011 Gallup poll found barely half of Americans, 52%, approving of the way he was handling the situation in Iraq; 41% disapproved. The positive aspect to this is that his approval on Iraq was among the highest for any issue at the time, exceeded only by terrorism, and was up from 41% the year before.

Thus, while there may be some lingering dissatisfaction with pulling out of Iraq among some Americans, particularly Republicans, the issue is a relative strong suit for the president.

2. Osama bin Laden and Terrorism

"For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country."

Taken literally, Obama's statement that Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat to the U.S. is certainly true. But Americans appear to agree with his implication that the country is now safer as a result. Not only did the vast majority of Americans -- 93% -- approve of the U.S. military action that was responsible for killing bin Laden on May 1, 2011, but 79% said that killing the al Qaeda leader was an extremely or very important thing for the United States. Additionally, Obama's approval rating for his handling of terrorism quickly rose to 63%, a new high for him.

Americans' belief that an act of terrorism could be imminent initially increased after bin Laden's death, most likely owing to concerns that al Qaeda would retaliate. However, by August, that fear had receded, and the 38% then saying a near-term attack was very or somewhat likely is on the low end of the range Gallup has recorded over the past decade.

3. Pride in the U.S. Military

"These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America's armed forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations."

While President Obama was certainly applauded for the success of "Operation Neptune Spear" -- the code name for the plan to kill bin Laden -- many more Americans credited the U.S. military "a great deal" (89%) than credited Obama (35%) or even the CIA (62%) with the mission's success.

Americans' positive reaction to the military's role in killing bin Laden is consistent with their broader trust in the military as an institution. The military has ridden atop Gallup's "confidence in institutions" ratings almost continuously since 1986. Seventy-eight percent in June 2011 said they have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military, similar to the percentage in 2010, but among the highest for the military in Gallup trends.

4. Economic Fairness

"We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules."

The precise meaning of these words the president used in his speech is not entirely clear. The first and third phrases in his second clause -- "fair shot" and "everyone plays by the same set of rules" seem to imply a general fairness to the economic system or equal opportunity to "do really well."

Recent Gallup research shows that 45% of Americans think the current economic system is fair in general, with a solid majority (62%) saying the economic system is fair to them personally. In this sense, more Americans than Obama implied in his speech may currently agree that they get a fair shot and are playing by the same set of rules as everyone else.

Fifty-three percent of Americans are satisfied with the opportunity a person has to get ahead by working hard, which is down significantly from several years ago. It is not clear whether the less positive response to this question over the last four years simply reflects the view that the bad economy makes it harder for anyone to get ahead, or a view that the system has become less fair for certain groups.

5. State of the Union Improving

"The state of our Union is getting stronger."

Americans' assessment of the country is not as positive as Obama's. Fewer than one in five Americans -- 18% -- are satisfied with the way things are going in the country generally, while 80% are dissatisfied -- far worse than the historical average for this measure. Similarly, with respect to the main issue driving public perceptions of the country -- the economy -- a mere 13% think economic conditions are excellent or good; 87% say they are only fair or poor, according to Gallup Daily tracking data from Jan. 22-24. And, by 58% to 36% in the same polling, the majority believes the economy is getting worse, not better.

As negative as these ratings are, however, they have been worse at points over the past few years. The 18% of Americans now satisfied with the country is up from its 2011 lows of 11%. And Americans' overall economic confidence has shown steady improvement since approaching Gallup's all-time recorded lows last summer.

6. Corporate Tax Code

"We should start with our tax code. Right now, companies get tax breaks for moving jobs and profits overseas. Meanwhile, companies that choose to stay in America get hit with one of the highest tax rates in the world. It makes no sense, and everyone knows it. So let's change it."

According to a Jan. 23 Gallup poll, Americans overwhelmingly favor the idea of giving tax breaks to U.S. corporations that bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. from overseas, suggesting strong support for Obama's desire to change the system. Complete data from the Jan. 23 survey are at the end of the story.

Additionally, in October 2011, 19% of Americans volunteered that the best way to create more jobs in the U.S. is to keep manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and not ship them overseas, the highest single category of responses recorded.

7. Trade Policy With China

"And I will not stand by when our competitors don't play by the rules. We've brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate as the last administration -- and it's made a difference. Over a thousand Americans are working today because we stopped a surge in Chinese tires. But we need to do more. …

Tonight, I'm announcing the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trading practices in countries like China."

Americans broadly and universally support putting pressure on China to make trade between the two nations fairer to the U.S., according to a Jan. 23 Gallup poll. About 7 in 10 Americans, overall, are in favor of this, with high percentages of Republicans, independents, and Democrats supporting it.

However, very few Americans volunteer trade as one of the "most important problems" facing the United States -- less than one-half of 1% in January. Still, the recent surge in public perceptions that China is the world's leading economic power clearly makes the issue of fair trade relevant for Americans.

8. Job Training

"Join me in a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. My administration has already lined up more companies that want to help."

A Jan. 23 Gallup survey shows that three-quarters of Americans favor increasing government spending for education and job training for the long-term unemployed. President Obama did not specify whether his proposed commitment would be just for unemployed Americans or for underemployed Americans looking to advance their skill levels, but these positive results suggest that the public would most likely favor such training for both groups.

9. Illegal Immigration

"I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration. … We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now."

At least 8 in 10 Americans in June 2011 said it is extremely or very important for the government to take steps to control U.S. borders to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the United States (82%) and to develop a plan to deal with illegal immigrants already living in the U.S. (81%). On the latter issue, 64% in the same poll believed illegal immigrants should be allowed to remain in the United States and become citizens if they meet certain requirements over time, compared with 21% who think they should be deported and 13% who said they should be allowed to remain only for a limited time to work.

When asked in December 2010 about a policy that would allow the children of illegal immigrants a chance to gain legal status if they attended college or joined the military, 54% of Americans said they would support such a measure; 42% would not.

10. Oil and Gas Exploration

"Over the last three years, we've opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration. And tonight, I'm directing my administration to open more than 75% of our potential offshore oil and gas resources."

Sixty percent of Americans in March 2011 favored increasing offshore drilling for oil and gas in U.S. coastal areas. The same poll found 49% in favor of opening the Alaskan wilderness to oil exploration -- a record high for that measure.

More broadly, the importance Americans place on energy exploration and production over competing environmental concerns has increased significantly during the economic downturn. Except for a temporary reversal in May 2010 after the BP oil spill off the Gulf Coast, Gallup polling since 2010 has found more Americans saying development of U.S. energy supplies should take precedence over environmental protection when the two goals conflict. From 2001 through 2008, the public tended to give preference to the environment on this measure; in 2009, views were split.

11. U.S. Energy Policy

"This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy, a strategy that's cleaner, cheaper, and full of new jobs."

Gallup's Jan. 23 poll finds 64% of Americans favoring increased government spending to support the development of alternative energy sources, with 32% opposed. Gallup has consistently found majority support for policies designed to expand the use of alternative energy.

More broadly, Americans would tend to agree with the president's desired emphasis on alternative energy over traditional sources. Last March, 66% of Americans said the U.S. should emphasize the development of alternative energy such as wind and solar power, while 26% thought the emphasis should be on increasing oil, gas, and coal supplies.

12. Spending on Infrastructure

"In the next few weeks, I will sign an executive order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects. But you need to fund these projects. Take the money we're no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home."

Americans view greater spending on infrastructure and cutting government regulation as two of the better ways to create jobs in the U.S. In fact, the only idea more frequently mentioned in response to an open-ended question on job creation ideas was to keep manufacturing jobs from going overseas. Democrats in particular see spending on infrastructure projects as a good way to create jobs.

Given a choice of four specific approaches to improving the economy, though, few Americans chose "stimulus spending," while the plurality preferred to see more money go to deficit and debt reduction.

13. Fairness in the Tax Code

"But in return, we need to change our tax code so that people like me, and an awful lot of members of Congress, pay our fair share of taxes.

Tax reform should follow the Buffett Rule: If you make more than a million dollars a year, you should not pay less than 30% in taxes. …

On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98% of American families, your taxes shouldn't go up. You're the ones struggling with rising costs and stagnant wages. You're the ones who need relief."

There have been a number of variants of Obama's continuing push to increase taxes on those making higher incomes. His wording in the speech most likely encompasses his desire to see the "Bush tax cuts," which are currently in the second year of a two-year extension, continued for those making under $250,000 a year, but not for those making more.

A good deal of research shows that a majority of Americans in general favor increasing taxes for the wealthy. About 6 in 10 say upper-income Americans pay too little in taxes, although this is down some from previous years. About half of Americans go so far as to agree that the "government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich."

Most recently, Gallup's Jan. 23 survey found that 63% of Americans favor the general concept of increasing federal income taxes on upper-income Americans.

14. Washington Gridlock

"But no matter what party they belong to, I bet most Americans are thinking the same thing right about now: Nothing will get done in Washington this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that, because Washington is broken."

President Obama is unlikely to find much disagreement with this contention, although his term "Washington" is broadly encompassing. Congressional job approval, confidence in the legislative branch of government, confidence in Congress as an institution, and the general image of the federal government were all at or near record lows in 2011. Additionally, Americans say the federal government wastes half of every dollar it spends, also a record high. A record-high number of Americans are dissatisfied with how well our system of government works.

Obama suggested in the speech that his own executive branch needed to be streamlined, although Americans give the executive branch considerably higher ratings than the legislative branch, and Obama's job approval rating is running about 30 points higher than Congress' rating. Additionally, the U.S. military is part of "Washington" in the sense that the Pentagon is located there, and the data show that the public does not appear to believe the military is broken, giving it the highest level of confidence of any institution tested.

15. Efficiency in Government

"That's why I've asked this Congress to grant me the authority to consolidate the federal bureaucracy, so that our government is leaner, quicker, and more responsive to the needs of the American people."

Americans widely believe the government is too large and powerful, and have highly negative views of the government more generally.

Earlier this month, 69% of Americans said they were dissatisfied with the "size and power of the federal government" and 64% were dissatisfied with "our system of government and how well it works," both new highs.

Moreover, Americans' rating of the federal government was more negative in 2011 than at any point in the prior decade, and was the most negative of 25 different sectors or industries.

16. Defense

"That's why, working with our military leaders, I've proposed a new defense strategy that ensures we maintain the finest military in the world, while saving nearly half a trillion dollars in our budget. To stay one step ahead of our adversaries, I've already sent this Congress legislation that will secure our country from the growing dangers of cyber-threats."

Americans are divided in their views on defense spending -- 39% say the government spends too much, 35% the right amount, and 22% too little. At the same time, Americans are generally satisfied with the nation's military strength and preparedness (71%) -- one of the areas in which Americans express the greatest satisfaction.

Data From Jan. 23, 2012, Survey

Americans' Support for Various Economic Proposals, January 2012

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