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Americans' Views on 10 Key State of the Union Proposals

Americans' Views on 10 Key State of the Union Proposals

Story Highlights

  • A number of President Obama's SOTU proposals do well in polls
  • Raising minimum wage, infrastructure spending get high marks
  • One proposal Americans oppose: Closing Guantanamo Bay prison

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Gallup data reveal how Americans' views line up with 10 key issues raised by President Barack Obama in his 2015 State of the Union address Tuesday night.

1. Raising the minimum wage

We still need to make sure employees get the overtime they've earned. And to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.

Gallup last asked about raising the minimum wage in November 2013, and at that time 76% were in favor of raising it to $9 an hour (from the current $7.25), while 22% were opposed. This included 91% of Democrats in favor, 76% of independents and 58% of Republicans. Separately, Gallup found 69% in favor of increasing the minimum wage to $9 along with establishing automatic inflation-based increases.

Despite this broad support, just 26% of Americans in 2014 said the minimum wage issue is extremely important for Obama and Congress to address. Altogether, 57% called it extremely or very important, but this was overshadowed by the 87% prioritizing veterans' healthcare, 72% prioritizing pay equality for women, and 65% wanting legislation to expand access to preschool. Notably, public demand for action on the minimum wage roughly equals that for passing new immigration reform legislation (58%), and slightly outpaces that for scaling back the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare (53%).

2. Laws to strengthen unions

We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions, and give American workers a voice.

Americans always have been more likely to say they approve than disapprove of labor unions and have historically sympathized with unions over companies in labor disputes. At the same time, the public's appetite for strengthening unions is moderate at best. Thirty-five percent of Americans say they would personally like to see labor unions have more influence than they do today, compared with 27% who prefer less influence and 23% who want their influence kept the same. And Americans widely support right-to-work laws, which prohibit requiring workers to join unions or pay union fees as a condition of employment.

3. Increased spending on infrastructure in order to create jobs

Let's pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come.

Gallup research from previous years has shown that the public strongly supports the idea of spending more money on infrastructure projects that would put people to work. One Gallup poll conducted in 2013 asked the question in two ways, one explicitly mentioning spending government money, and the other not, and found 72% vs. 77% support across the two wordings.

4. Reform tax code for working/middle class

But for far too long, lobbyists have rigged the tax code with loopholes that let some corporations pay nothing while others pay full freight. They've riddled it with giveaways the super-rich don't need, denying a break to middle class families who do.

And let's close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top 1% to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth. We can use that money to help more families pay for childcare and send their kids to college.

Obama made no bones about his desire to increase taxes on corporations and the top 1% of income earners specifically to help ease taxes and household expenses for the middle and working class.

In 2014, 49% of Americans said the middle class pays too much in taxes. Further, 61% said upper-income people pay too little and 66% said the same of corporations. On the surface, this seems consistent with Obama's approach to tax reform.

However, far fewer Americans expressed the relevant combination of views to be completely in sync with Obama's redistributive goals. Just 31% say that middle-income people pay too much and that upper-income people pay too little. Similarly, 34% say the middle class pays too much and that corporations pay too little. The rest, either believe both entities pay the right amount, both pay too much, or some other combination of views.

More broadly, 54% of Americans last April said their tax bill is "fair," but this was the lowest positive reading on this measure since 2001. At the same time, 52% said they consider the amount of federal income tax they pay as too high -- indicating that they would welcome some tax relief. The percentage saying their tax bill is too high was the highest figure Gallup has seen on this question since 2008, although still below the 65% found in 2001 before President George W. Bush's first round of tax cuts. Less than one-third of Americans in a January Gallup survey said they were satisfied with the amount Americans pay in federal taxes.

5. Authorizing the use of force against ISIL

Tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.

Obama's request for a resolution on ISIL, also known as the Islamic State group or ISIS, is to some degree an "after the fact" element of his speech, given that under his orders as commander in chief, the U.S. military has been launching attacks against ISIL and Islamic militants for months. There is no recent research that directly asks about a congressional resolution on such military action, but Gallup polling from 2014 shows Americans backed the military action after it began.

Gallup data from September show that Americans approve of taking military action "in Iraq and Syria against Islamic militants, commonly known as ISIS," by 60% to 31%. This is slightly below the average support for other military actions Gallup has asked about over recent decades.

7. Lifting the Cuba embargo

In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you're doing doesn't work for 50 years, it's time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.

Gallup last asked about the Cuba embargo in 2009, at which time Americans were more likely to favor (51%) than oppose (36%) ending it. However, the results are consistent with what Gallup found the five times it asked about the embargo between 1999 and 2009. It is unclear if President Obama's recent moves to normalize relations with Cuba may have affected those views. Americans historically have been even more supportive of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and of ending U.S. restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba.

7. Reducing Carbon emissions

In Beijing, we made an historic announcement -- the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world's two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we've got.

Americans favor proposals to set higher emission standards for business and industry (65%) and for automobiles (62%). They show similar support, 63%, for imposing mandatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions. However, their support for all of these proposals, is down considerably from the past. As recently as 2007, 79% or more favored each of these proposals. That decline may be in part related to the economic downturn -- Americans tend to be less in favor of environmental protection when the economy is weaker. It may also be due to the shift from having a Republican president less likely to pursue tougher environmental policies to a Democratic president who is more likely to do so.

8. Closing the Guantanamo Bay prison

It makes no sense to spend $3 million per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit. Since I've been president, we've worked responsibly to cut the population of Guantanamo Bay in half. Now it's time to finish the job. And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It's not who we are.

The president appears to be fighting an uphill battle when it comes to Americans' views on closing Guantanamo Bay. Gallup has asked Americans about the Guantanamo Bay prison four times since 2007, prefacing the question by informing respondents that the prison holds "people from other countries who are suspected of being terrorists" and asking if the prison should or should not be closed and move "some of the prisoners to U.S. prisons". A majority has opposed closing the prison each time Gallup has asked the question. Most recently, a June 5-8, 2014, Gallup survey showed that 66% opposed and 29% favored closing the prison.

Attitudes about closing the prison may be related to details about what would happen to the prisoners. A January 2009 Gallup poll that simply asked if the prison should be closed -- with no further explanation -- found sentiment somewhat more closely divided, with 35% saying it should be closed, and 45% saying it should not.

9. Congressional cooperation

There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn't what you signed up for -- arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision. Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.

Obama's call for more civility in Washington is music to the ears of at least a segment of Americans, particularly those who cite partisan politics as the nation's top problem. Partisanship, along with a collection of other reasons to be dissatisfied with government, has been one of the most frequently mentioned issues in recent years when Americans were asked to name the most important problem facing the nation. On average, 18% of Americans in Gallup's monthly measures throughout 2014 mentioned dysfunctional government, making it the most frequently mentioned issue, just ahead of the economy at 17%. And dissatisfaction with government remains a top problem so far in 2015, registering 17% in early January.

Although Gallup has not asked directly about Americans' preference for increased political civility, they do show a stronger and increasing preference for political leaders in Washington to compromise in order to get things done rather than stick to their beliefs even if little gets done.

10. Reform the criminal justice system

Surely we can agree it's a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America's criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.

All Americans in general appear to be open to the idea of reforming the criminal justice system, given that the public has a relatively low level of confidence in the system to begin with. In Gallup's annual update on confidence in institutions this past June, 23% of Americans had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the criminal justice system, putting it in the bottom half of all institutions tested. Other evidence shows that the high visibility of the events in Ferguson and New York have eroded confidence in the police and in race relations in general, suggesting that confidence in the criminal justice system could itself be even lower now than it was in June. Aggregated data over the past four years shows that blacks are somewhat more likely to say they have very little or no confidence in the criminal justice system than whites.

A question from a 2013 Gallup poll asking if the American justice system is biased against black people revealed a much more substantial racial divide: 68% of blacks said "yes" compared with 25% of whites.

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