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State of the Union: The Public Weighs In on 10 Key Issues

State of the Union: The Public Weighs In on 10 Key Issues

Where Americans stand on immigration, energy, minimum wage, and other issues

PRINCETON, NJ -- President Barack Obama recommended a number of actions in his 2014 State of the Union address Tuesday. Some steps he will take using executive orders; others were requests for congressional legislative action.

Gallup data reveal how Americans' views line up with 10 of these issues.

1. Immigration

"If we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement -- and fix our broken immigration system."

Immigration is a relatively low-priority issue for Americans, with 50% saying it is extremely or very important for the president and Congress to address the issue this year. Three percent name immigration as the most important problem facing the nation.

Thirty-eight percent of Americans are satisfied with the level of immigration into the U.S., and 54% are dissatisfied. Most of those who are dissatisfied want to see immigration levels decreased. Although more Americans are dissatisfied than satisfied, satisfaction is the highest it has been since Gallup first asked this question in 2001.

Americans widely favor a variety of proposals to address illegal immigration, including tightening security at U.S. borders, requiring business owners to check new employees' immigration status, extending the number of short-term work visas for skilled workers, and giving illegal immigrants in the U.S. a path to citizenship.

2. Minimum wage

"Today, the federal minimum wage is worth about 20% less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here. Tom Harkin and George Miller have a bill to fix that by lifting the minimum wage to $10.10. This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It doesn't involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise."

Americans overwhelmingly support increasing the minimum wage. Gallup found in November that 76% of Americans favor a specific proposal to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour. The president on Tuesday proposed a more generous raise to $10.10 an hour. Gallup has historically found that public support for increasing the minimum wage generally exceeds 75%. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support hikes in the minimum wage.

Relatively few Americans mention the minimum wage as the best way to fix the U.S. economy, instead focusing on job creation and tax cuts.

3. Energy and the environment

"My administration will keep working with the [natural gas] industry to sustain production and job growth while strengthening protection of our air, our water, and our communities. … Let's continue that progress with a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don't need it, so that we can invest more in fuels of the future that do. … That's why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities, and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air."

Obama's call for greater environmental protection via government action is likely to receive a mixed reaction from the American public. A long-term Gallup trend shows that fewer Americans now (47%) than in the past say the government is doing too little to protect the environment. Another 16% say the government is doing too much, while approximately one-third say the government is doing about the right amount. There are, as might be expected, major partisan differences, with Democrats much more likely than Republicans to say the government is doing too little.

More generally, neither Democrats nor Republicans classify the environment as a top priority for the president and Congress. The environment is tied for the seventh-highest-rated priority -- out of a list of issues -- among Democrats, while it is near the bottom of the list among Republicans. In fact, the partisan gap in prioritization of the environment, 39 points, is higher than for any other issue tested or measured in this way.

Obama clearly recognizes that there is a tradeoff between "sustaining production and job growth" and "protection of our air, our water, and our communities." Gallup measures of the public's preferences on the two sides of this tradeoff over the past 13 years show that at this point, neither perspective prevails -- about equal numbers of Americans choose protection of the environment and development of U.S. energy sources.

The president proposed more investment in nontraditional fuels. The public would appear to agree with this emphasis. Given a tradeoff between developing alternative energy such as wind and solar power, and the production of more oil, gas, and coal supplies, Americans lean heavily toward the former, by 59% to 31%.

4. Invest in infrastructure

"Moreover, we can take the money we save with this transition to tax reform to create jobs rebuilding our roads, upgrading our ports, unclogging our commutes -- because in today's global economy, first-class jobs gravitate to first-class infrastructure."

The general concept of spending government money to create jobs rebuilding and working on the nation's infrastructure resonates with Americans.

A Gallup survey conducted last March showed that 77% of Americans would vote for a federal government program that would put people to work on urgent infrastructure programs. A slightly different version of that question included the phrase "spend government money" to put people to work on infrastructure, and that version produced 72% support.

5. Affordable Care Act

"But let's not have another forty-something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans like Amanda. The first forty were plenty. We got it. We all owe it to the American people to say what we're for, not just what we're against. … That's why, tonight, I ask every American who knows someone without health insurance to help them get covered by March 31st."

Americans cite the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, as the single greatest achievement, as well as the single biggest failure, so far in the president's administration. The controversial nature of this signature legislation may help explain why the president gave it only a brief mention in his speech, defending the need for the law, and challenging Republicans to cease their efforts to repeal the measure. He also called for the uninsured to sign up for health insurance.

It is clear that the public as a whole is more negative than positive about the legislation. Gallup's last measure, in January, showed 54% disapprove of the law, while 38% approve, the most negative assessment in Gallup's trend. Additionally, the plurality of Americans say Obamacare has had a more negative than positive effect on them personally, and that it will have a more negative effect on them and on the country in the future.

These negative attitudes, however, do not necessarily mean that the public wants the law repealed, as Obama appeared to recognize in his speech. Thirty-two percent of Americans in December wanted the law repealed entirely, while the rest were divided between wanting the law expanded, cut back, or kept as is. The majority of Americans, in short, would apparently agree with Obama's position that efforts to repeal the law should be curtailed, and four in 10 would apparently be favorably predisposed to suggestions for ways to amend and improve the law.

In terms of Obama's plea that the uninsured should sign up for healthcare, Gallup found that the percentage of uninsured adults fell slightly in January. But the uninsured rate still has a long distance to go before it shrinks into the desired single-digit range.

6. Foreign trade/Bringing jobs home

"Both Democrats and Republicans have argued that our tax code is riddled with wasteful, complicated loopholes that punish businesses investing here, and reward companies that keep profits abroad. Let's flip that equation. Let's work together to close those loopholes, end those incentives to ship jobs overseas, and lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs here at home. … We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment, and open new markets to new goods stamped 'Made in the USA.' China and Europe aren't standing on the sidelines. Neither should we."

Many Americans support bringing jobs home to the U.S. Gallup has asked Americans twice over the past five years to say in their own words what would be the best way to create more jobs in the U.S. The most frequently mentioned response in both instances was keeping manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and not sending them overseas.

The president specifically referenced in his speech the idea of changing the tax code to encourage businesses to bring jobs home. A separate referendum-type question last March asked Americans if they would vote for or against a law that would lower tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that "create jobs in the United States." An overwhelming 79% said they would vote for such a law. This proposition receives strong support across the political spectrum, and thus suggests that this component of Obama's recommendations would be well received.

The idea of taking steps to increase "Made in U.S.A." goods also resonates with the public. An April poll showed that 45% of Americans were already making a special effort to buy products made in the U.S.

7. Reform surveillance programs

"So even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks -- through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners -- America must move off a permanent war footing. That's why I've imposed prudent limits on the use of drones -- for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence. That's why, working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs -- because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated."

After hailing the success of anti-terrorism efforts, Obama made a glancing reference to reforming the federal government's surveillance programs, intimating that this is needed to restore Americans' belief that "the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated."

Americans don't seem to be clamoring for action on the issue. In fact, less than half of Americans, 42%, rated government surveillance of citizens as an extremely or very high priority for the president and Congress this year. However, government spying programs are a latent public concern, and therefore a potential liability for Obama. Sixty-three percent of Americans say they are very or somewhat dissatisfied with the government's surveillance of U.S citizens. And 53% last June said they disapproved of the government's building a database of U.S. telephone and Internet records. That was shortly after Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, publicly revealed this spy program.

Further, political independents -- whose votes will be crucial in tight House and Senate contests this fall -- are particularly critical of government surveillance. Half of independents, compared with 36% of Republicans and 21% of Democrats, say they are "very dissatisfied" with this aspect of the nation right now. Thus, by indicating that he respects personal privacy and wants to rein in any possible government overreach, Obama may be trying to limit Republican candidates' ability to paint Democrats as the "surveillance party."

8. Gun violence

"Citizenship means standing up for the lives that gun violence steals from us each day. I have seen the courage of parents, students, pastors, and police officers all over this country who say 'we are not afraid,' and I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters, shopping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook."

Without mentioning specific proposals, Obama pledged to work "with or without Congress" to help prevent future tragedies involving gun violence. Gallup trends suggest that the window for capitalizing on Americans' post-Sandy Hook concern about the issue may be over. Public support for passing stricter gun laws spiked in the first month after the December 2012 tragedy, but by October 2013, it had nearly reverted to pre-Newtown levels. Additionally, while satisfaction with existing gun laws is down, that mostly reflects those who are dissatisfied because they believe gun laws are too strict, rather than not strict enough.

Still, Obama may have public opinion on his side when it comes to advancing specific measures to strengthen regulations regarding the sale and purchase of guns and ammunition. Gallup polling over the past year has found broad public support for many such proposals, such as 65% support for a law expanding background checks for gun purchases, 60% support for reinstating and strengthening an expired ban on assault rifles, and 54% in favor of limiting the sale of high-capacity magazines.

9. New retirement savings vehicle MyRA

"Let's do more to help Americans save for retirement. Today, most workers don't have a pension. A Social Security check often isn't enough on its own. And while the stock market has doubled over the last five years, that doesn't help folks who don't have 401(k)s. That's why, tomorrow, I will direct the Treasury to create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings: MyRA. It's a new savings bond that encourages folks to build a nest egg. MyRA guarantees a decent return with no risk of losing what you put in."

MyRA is a new proposed way for Americans to save for retirement to supplement Social Security. Fewer Americans expect to live comfortably in retirement than did so before the recession. And six in 10 nonretirees do not expect to receive a Social Security benefit when they retire.

The major retirement funding sources for today's retirees, Social Security and pensions, are not the same sources nonretirees expect to rely on when they stop working.

Nonretirees expect retirement savings plans such as 401(k)s to be their major retirement funding source. However, not all nonretirees have access to 401(k) plans or funding sources other than Social Security; this is particularly true of low-income workers. Without alternative funding sources, future retirees may be forced to continue working beyond retirement age -- increasing numbers already expect to -- or make do on what Social Security provides.

The importance to Americans of having a way to grow tax-deferred savings for retirement was evident in a 2012 Wells Fargo-Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism Index survey, in which 83% of investors rated 401(k) and other tax-advantaged accounts as highly important to saving for retirement. The same poll found majorities of investors calling it extremely or very important for the federal government to take a number of steps that could encourage more Americans to use 401(k) accounts; thus, it seems likely investors would welcome the establishment of a new tax-deferred option.

10. Limits on drones

"I've imposed prudent limits on the use of drones -- for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence."

Americans generally oppose the use of drones to attack suspected terrorists who are either U.S. citizens or living on U.S. soil. But a majority of Americans do support using drones against suspected terrorists (not identified as U.S. citizens) living in other countries. Americans are particularly opposed to using drones in the United States, even against suspected terrorists who are not U.S. citizens.

Gallup will continue to monitor public opinion on the key issues raised in the president's speech in the weeks and months to come.

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