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Latest Summary: American Public Opinion and the War on Terrorism

Latest Summary: American Public Opinion and the War on Terrorism



The War

In a Dec. 14-16 Gallup poll, the vast majority of Americans -- 92% -- express satisfaction with the amount of progress made by the U.S. military in the war in Afghanistan, including 69% who say they are "very satisfied." The percentage reporting they are very satisfied with the effort is up from 58% in late November, and just 27% in early November.

Public confidence in the war effort continues even when extending the war into Iraq is mentioned. More than six in 10 Americans (66%) say they think the U.S. war efforts would be as successful in Iraq as they have been in Afghanistan, while 26% say they would not be as successful.

Americans are fairly confident that the United States will be able to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. Forty-three percent say this is very likely and 33% think it is somewhat likely. The December poll was taken prior to a statement from U.S. officials that they had no clues as to bin Laden's whereabouts, and were not receiving much new intelligence on where he might be.

Capturing or killing bin Laden would be a significant milepost in the war on terrorism. However, a huge percentage of Americans see it as "just one step in a long campaign against terrorism" (93%), rather than an event signaling that "the U.S. has accomplished its goals in the war on terrorism" (5%). Additionally, 67% of Americans believe the military action should continue even if bin Laden is killed and his terrorist network in Afghanistan is destroyed, while 30% say they think the current military action should end at that point.

When asked about the length of the conflict more generally, over half of Americans (56%) say the war in Afghanistan will be over within several months or less, according to a Dec. 6-9 Gallup poll. About four out of 10 say the fighting in Afghanistan will last at least a year. This marks a more optimistic position than was taken by the public in polling conducted just as the military action got underway in October.

The latest job approval rating for President Bush, from the Dec. 14-16 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, is 86%. Bush's approval rating has remained in the high-80% range since mid-September, and the 10 readings of Bush's approval rating since that time are among the highest Gallup has ever recorded. Bush has been able to sustain his high ratings longer than any president in Gallup polling history.

The public has given all government officials very positive ratings for how they are handling the war on terrorism. A Dec. 6-9 Gallup poll shows 87% approval for Bush and 82% approval for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Approval of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge's efforts in the war on terrorism is slightly lower at 67%, but only 12% disapprove, while 21% do not have an opinion. Earlier polling also showed high approval of the jobs Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell are doing.

In recent weeks, the Justice Department has come under some criticism for actions it has taken since Sept. 11, including the arrest and detention of several hundred people thought to have ties to terrorists, and the proposed use of military tribunals to try those suspected of terrorism. Nevertheless, the public still gives high marks to Attorney General John Ashcroft for his handling of the war on terrorism, with 76% approving and only 14% disapproving. Additionally, a Nov. 26-27 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that just 10% of the public thought the Bush administration had gone too far in restricting people's civil liberties in order to fight terrorism. Sixty percent thought the administration had "been about right," and 26% said the administration had "not gone far enough" in this regard.

Congress also gets very high marks from the public -- 72% approve of the job Congress is doing overall, according to the Dec. 6-9 poll. This is down somewhat from an 84% approval rating in mid-October, but is still one of the highest scores Gallup has ever found for Congress.

The Economy

Americans are about evenly divided over whether the federal government should take "immediate" action to stimulate the economy (47%), or whether the country's current economic problems are part of the natural business cycle, and immediate government action is not necessary (49%). But if the government were to take action, the vast majority of Americans, 84%, think such action would improve the economy either a great deal (34%) or a fair amount (50%). Only 15% think governmental action would not be effective.

Political Implications of the Recession

The public is not inclined to blame the Bush administration very much for the current economic recession. Seventy-nine percent say that a great deal or a moderate amount of the country's economic problems are the result of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. In addition, when asked specifically about who is to blame for the recession, 75% of Americans say Congress deserves some or a great deal of the blame, compared with 62% who say that about the Clinton administration, and just 44% who assign some blame to the Bush administration. Also, more people say they prefer the Republicans' over the Democrats' approach to dealing with the economy, by a margin of 44% to 35%, with the rest expressing no preference.

Consumer Confidence

Some of the latest economic measures suggest that, after an initial surge following the terrorist attacks, and a subsequent drop, public confidence in the economy may now be leveling off. A Gallup poll conducted Sept. 7-10 showed just 32% of Americans rating economic conditions as excellent or good, the lowest level since May 1996. The next week, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the percentage jumped to 46%, comparable to the ratings given to the economy six months earlier. An Oct. 11-14 poll showed the percentage dropping back to 38%, while a Nov. 8-11 poll showed another decline, to 31% -- just a point under the pre-attack level. A Dec. 6-9 Gallup poll shows no change from last month.

Despite the lower current ratings of the economy, Americans seem more optimistic about the future than they did last month. In the Dec. 6-9 poll, 44% of Americans say the economy is getting better and 48% say worse. These percentages are considerably better than those from last month, when 30% said the economy was getting better and 59% said worse. Right before the terrorist attacks, the numbers were 19% better and 70% worse.

Both the monthly consumer confidence index of the Conference Board and the ABC News/Money magazine weekly consumer comfort index suggest that the drop in public confidence in the economy may be leveling off. In September, the consumer confidence index fell by 17.0 points to 97.0. The next month it fell another 11.7 points, bringing it to the lowest level since February 1994. In November, however, the index fell by just 3.1 points. Similarly, the consumer comfort index was at -4 three months ago, not much different from the most recent reading of -3, taken on Dec. 9.

Whatever people's evaluations of the current economy are, their evaluations of their own current financial situations have remained constant over the past four months. Between 52% and 56% of Americans have rated their current financial situations as excellent or good, with just 10% to 13% saying poor.

Still, Americans are more optimistic now than they were last month about where they think their financial situations are headed. The Dec. 6-9 poll shows 59% saying "getting better," while just 24% say "worse." Last month, only 45% said their financial situations were getting better, while 33% said worse. 

Daily Lives

According to a Dec. 14-16 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, more than six in 10 Americans (65%) report they have contributed money -- in any way -- to help the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and their families. Thirty-five percent of Americans have not contributed any money to the funds. The poll also finds that two-thirds of the public (67%) feels that some of the donated money, in addition to direct dispersals for victims and their families, should be used to establish support services such as job counseling and grief therapy. Roughly three in 10 Americans (31%) feel all of the money should be given directly to the victims and their families.

A Nov. 26-27 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows that the fear of terrorism among Americans is at its lowest point since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Still, Americans rate terrorism as the most important problem facing this country. According to the November poll, 35% of Americans are at least somewhat worried that they, or a family member, may become the victim of a terrorist attack, including 8% who are very worried. The percentage of Americans who express concern about terrorism has decreased substantially since mid-October, when 51% were at least somewhat worried. Almost two-thirds of all Americans (64%) in the Nov. 26-27 poll say they are not too worried or not worried at all about becoming a victim.

There is little doubt that the war on terrorism has come to dominate Americans' consciousness, as is evident in the answers to Gallup's classic "What is the most important problem facing the nation" question. Roughly half of all Americans interviewed Dec. 6-9 mention some aspect of the war on terrorism -- terrorism itself (24%), fear of war (17%), national security (6%), and international issues in general (2%). The percentage of Americans who name terrorism as the most important problem in the nation has decreased. In October, almost three in four named terrorism as the most important problem, and roughly six in 10 mentioned it in November.

The Dec. 6-9 poll finds that seven in 10 Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in this country. This current rating is the highest since February 1999. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the public's overall satisfaction has increased substantially -- roughly two-thirds of the public said they were satisfied with the state of the nation in October and November.

The Nov. 26-27 poll also shows that over six in 10 Americans (63%) are "extremely" or "very" confident that the American way of life will be preserved. An additional 29% say they are "moderately" confident, and only 7% say they are not too confident or not confident at all. The public's rating of this measure has remained steady since it was first asked in a Sept. 21-22 poll. Likewise, an Oct. 19-21 poll showed that 77% of Americans believe the government's efforts since Sept. 11 have made this nation safer, including 30% who think it is a lot safer, and 47% who think it is only a little safer. One in five believe the nation is not safer following the government's recent protective actions.


Recent polling shows that Americans express fairly restrained levels of concern about their own chances of being exposed to this form of bioterrorism. In fact, concern levels are exactly the same as they were when Gallup first measured them in late October. According to the Nov. 26-27 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, just 7% of Americans are "very worried" about the possibility that they or someone in their family will be exposed to anthrax. Another 26% are "somewhat worried," 34% are "not too worried," and 33% are "not worried at all." The same poll shows that concern about anthrax is nearly identical to concern about being the victim of any kind of terrorist attack.

Despite the authorities' failure thus far to identify the source of the anthrax attacks, Americans express fairly high levels of confidence in the U.S. government's ability to prevent more anthrax exposures -- just 13% are "very confident," but another 49% are "somewhat confident." Only 28% are "not too confident" and 10% are "not at all confident." This, too, is unchanged from earlier polling.

Furthermore, Americans are fairly optimistic that the U.S. government will be able to identify and punish those responsible for the anthrax attacks -- 21% think this is "very likely" and 45% think it is "somewhat likely." Just 28% think it is "not too likely" and only 6% believe it is "not at all likely."

Some authorities have speculated that the sponsor of the anthrax-laced letters sent to NBC, CBS, ABC, and the U.S. Capitol, among other places, is most likely a domestic citizen. However, by a 48% to 40% margin, Americans tend to believe that non-U.S. citizens are responsible.

  • Americans' Personal Reaction to Anthrax: Earlier Gallup polling reinforces the indication that Americans are far from panicked about the risk of anthrax infection to themselves or their families. As of early November, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found just 27% of Americans using more caution in handling their mail. In the same survey, a majority of Americans were at least somewhat confident that the government is prepared to deal effectively with the health threats posed by a major attack involving anthrax (28% were "very confident," and another 52% were "somewhat confident").
  • Confidence in U.S. Government on Anthrax: In the Nov. 2-4 survey, 75% of Americans said they approved of the Bush administration's handling of the anthrax incidents. A Newsweek poll conducted Nov. 15-16 found a majority of Americans (57%) saying they believe the Bush administration has "a well thought-out plan for fighting bioterrorism and other terrorist threats at home." This is up from 48% in late October. And a poll conducted Nov. 9-13 by the Associated Press (AP) finds only 21% of Americans saying the government's handling of the anthrax situation has made them feel less confident in the government's ability to fight terrorism. A slightly larger number (26%) say it makes them feel confident in the government, while 50% say it has not affected their confidence.
  • The Next Bioterrorist Threat? The mid-November AP poll explores Americans' concern about another bioterrorist weapon that could be, conceivably, released into this country -- the highly contagious smallpox virus. The AP survey finds only 11% of Americans "very worried" about this potential threat, but another 42% "somewhat worried" -- putting this fear above fear of anthrax. When asked whether they would personally choose to receive a smallpox vaccine, after being told that it carries a small risk of fatality, 61% of Americans say they would get the vaccine if they had the opportunity, 30% would not, and 9% are unsure.

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