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Americans Fear Impact of Foreign-Held Debt on Economy

Americans Fear Impact of Foreign-Held Debt on Economy

by Elizabeth Mendes

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- About three in four Americans are "very concerned" about how the amount of U.S. debt held by other countries will affect the U.S. economy. Fewer, but still majorities, express that level of concern about the political situation in Iran and trade relations with China. Of the four international issues tested, Americans are least likely to be very concerned about how the financial situation in Europe could affect the U.S. economy.

How concerned are you about the impact of each of the following on the U.S. economy -- very concerned, somewhat concerned, not too concerned, or not concerned at all? February 2012 results

These data are from Gallup's annual World Affairs survey, conducted Feb. 2-5, 2012, before a series of incidents occurred in mid- and late February that heightened tensions with Iran and thrust that nation back into the media spotlight. It is certainly possible that Americans' level of concern regarding the effect of the Iranian political situation on the U.S. economy has grown since the survey. However, despite the consistently high level of news coverage of Europe's financial woes, Americans seem less concerned about their impact on the United States economy.

The issue of U.S. government debt has been prominent in the news since last summer, when the fight over raising the nation's debt ceiling broke out in Washington. Although Congress and the president were eventually able to find a compromise, albeit short-term, solution, the event led to a downgrading of the U.S. government's credit rating. In addition, the need to work out a longer-term debt-reduction plan combined with the highly partisan rhetoric of a presidential election year has kept the issue at the forefront.

Of the four issues, Republicans, independents, and Democrats, and Americans of all ideological groups appear to be most concerned about the potential impact that the amount of U.S. debt held by other countries will have on the U.S. economy. Republicans and conservatives, however, are far more likely to be very concerned about this than are other political and ideological groups. Democrats and liberals express less concern about all four issues compared with Republicans and conservatives.

How concerned are you about the impact of each of the following on the U.S. economy -- very concerned, somewhat concerned, not too concerned, or not concerned at all? % Very concerned, by party and ideology, February 2012

Bottom Line

Americans report higher levels of concern about U.S. debt held by other countries than about three other international matters that could affect the U.S. economy. Budgetary issues are central this presidential election season and are not likely to go away anytime soon, as Republicans and Democrats cannot agree about how to balance the federal budget, let alone how to reduce the amount of federal debt.

Foreign countries, particularly China, have held U.S. debt for many years. It is unknown when or if those countries will ask for repayment of the debt, or if they will continue to hold on to it. If foreign countries begin to see the U.S. as a poor investment, they may be increasingly tempted to call for debt repayment. With the U.S. government seemingly unable to find sufficient funds to pay its yearly budget, it is unclear how the U.S. government would repay large portions of the debt it owes.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 2-5, 2012, with a random sample of 1,029 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2011 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

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.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit

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