May 1, 2008

Obama’s Image Slips, His Lead Over Clinton Disappears

Section 5: Less Optimism about Iraq

In February, there was a decidedly positive shift in several of the public’s perceptions about the war in Iraq and views of what to do next. In the current survey, however, many of these trends have been reversed.

Currently, just 44% of Americans believe that the U.S. military effort in Iraq is going very or fairly well; a narrow majority (52%) says that things there are going not too well or not at all well. In November and February, public perceptions about progress in the U.S. military effort were evenly split (48% going well, 48% not well).

Similarly, the public is now divided in its view of whether the United States will succeed or fail in achieving its goals in Iraq (47% succeed, 46% fail). In February, a 53% majority said the United States would eventually succeed in Iraq, compared with 39% who said it would fail.

In addition, 56% of Americans favor withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq as soon as possible while 41% support keeping U.S. troops in Iraq until the situation is stable. The proportion favoring a troop withdrawal as is now at its highest point in nearly a year (56% in June 2007. Opinions about withdrawing U.S. troops – like other attitudes regarding Iraq – remain deeply polarized politically. About seven-in-ten Republicans (72%) favor keeping U.S. troops in Iraq until the situation is stable, compared with 40% of independents and just 20% of Democrats. Support for maintaining U.S. troops in Iraq has slipped among all three groups since February.

In contrast with other attitudes on Iraq, views about the original decision to use military force in Iraq had remained stable in previous surveys, with majorities saying the decision was wrong. In the current survey, the proportion opposing the decision to go to war has edged up to 57%, the highest percentage expressing this view in the five years of the Iraq war; in December 2007, 56% said the decision to use force was wrong.

Perceptions of Progress

The improved climate of public opinion about Iraq had been particularly evident in measures of progress toward specific goals, such as reducing the level of civilian casualties and defeating the insurgents militarily. But in these and other areas, increasing numbers of Americans say the United States is losing ground.

For instance, a plurality (48%) now says the United States is losing ground in reducing the number of civilian casualties while 37% say the United States is making progress toward this objective. The balance of opinion on this issue has flipped since February 2008, when 46% said progress was being made and 40% said the United States was losing ground.

The public is evenly divided about whether the United States losing ground (43%) or making progress (42%) in defeating the insurgents militarily. In February, by a wide margin (49% to 35%), more people said the United States was achieving progress in defeating the Iraqi insurgency.

Public evaluations of whether the United States is making progress in preventing a civil war in Iraq have not changed much in the past two months. In February, about half (49%) said the United States was losing ground and about the same proportion expresses that view currently (51%).

And opinions about progress in one area – rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure – have continued to improve, despite the downward movement in other perceptions of progress. Currently, 53% say the United States is making progress in rebuilding roads, power plants and other services, up from 47% in February. In June 2007, just 36% of the public said the United States was making progress toward this goal.

Iraq and Terrorism in the U.S.

Roughly four-in-ten Americans (41%) say that, if the United States withdraws its forces from Iraq while the country remains unstable, it would make a terrorist attack on the United States more likely; 42% say a troop withdrawal under such circumstances would not make a difference in the terrorism threat in this country, while 11% say this would make an attack on the U.S. less likely.

Opinions on this issue have changed modestly from April 2007, when 45% said withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq with the country unstable would raise the risk of terrorism in the United States. However, fewer Democrats, in particular, say a troop withdrawal would lead to an increased risk of terrorism in the United States. A year ago, 35% of Democrats said a troop withdrawal with Iraq still unstable would make an attack on the U.S. more likely; just 23% of Democrats say that today. Views among Republicans and independents have shown less change; 65% of Republicans and 37% of independents currently say a withdrawal from a still-unstable Iraq would increase the terrorism risk in this country.

The belief that a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq would increase the terrorism risk in the United States also has declined modestly over the past year. Currently, 35% say if U.S. troops remain in Iraq for many years, it would make an attack on this country more likely; 41% expressed that view in April 2007.