September 24, 2008

Declining Public Support for Global Engagement

Section 1: Policy Priorities and America’s Global Image

With widespread economic uncertainty at home, the public clearly wants the next president to devote most of his attention to domestic, rather than overseas, matters. Six-in-ten Americans say it is more important for the next president to focus on domestic policy rather than foreign policy, compared with just 21% who say foreign policy should be the primary focus. This opinion is virtually unchanged from May, when 61% said it was more important for the next president to focus domestically.

In January, 56% said it was more important for President Bush to focus on domestic policy rather than foreign policy. Opinion about this issue was more evenly divided in January 2007, shortly after Bush announced plans for the military surge in Iraq; at that time, 40% said the president should focus on foreign policy while 39% said he should focus on domestic policy.

In the current survey, two-thirds of registered voters who say they are certain to support Obama in November (67%) say that domestic policy should be the more important focus for the next president, compared with half of committed McCain voters. A sizable majority of swing voters (62%) say the next president should focus on domestic affairs rather than international issues.

Long-Term Policy Priorities

Taking measures to protect the United States from terrorist attacks and protecting U.S. jobs continue to be broadly supported foreign policy objectives. More than eight-in-ten Americans say each should be a top long-range foreign policy goal of the United States (82% each). These percentages have changed only modestly over the past seven years.

The survey finds that reducing the nation’s dependence on imported energy sources also has become a leading foreign policy goal. Today, more than three-quarters (76%) say that “reducing our dependence on imported energy sources” should be a top priority, compared with 67% three years ago, and 63% in July 2004.

A number of other long-term policy goals are viewed as less important than they were a few years ago. The largest declines concern the importance of reducing the spread of AIDS and other infections diseases, reducing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and promoting human rights.

Only about half of Americans (53%) now view reducing the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases as a top long-term policy goal, down from 72% in 2005 and 2004.

The proportion who say that preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction is a top long-term goal has fallen 13 points (from 75% to 62%) since October 2005; fewer people now rate stopping weapons proliferation as a major objective than at any point in 15 years.

Promoting human rights (down 12 points), protecting countries or groups threatened with genocide (down 10 points) are regarded as less important foreign policy objectives than they were in 2005. The percentage that rates strengthening the United Nations as a major long-term goal has fallen by eight points since 2005 (to 32%) and nearly equals the all-time low reached in 1997 (30%).

Opinions about other foreign policy objectives, while stable in recent years, have changed since the 1990s. In 1999, for instance, 35% rated finding a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict a top priority; that percentage fell to 28% in 2005 and 25% in the current survey.

Partisan Gaps over Priorities

The percentage of Americans who rate dealing with global climate change as a top priority has not changed since 2005 (43%). However, differences between Republicans and Democrats over the importance of this issue have widened considerably.

Currently, 64% of Democrats view dealing with global climate change as a top priority, up from 52% three years ago. The percentage of Republicans who see climate change as a major issue has declined over this period – from 28% in 2005 to 22% currently. Notably, more than a quarter of all Republicans (27%), including 32% of conservative Republicans, say dealing with global climate change should have “no priority at all.”

Partisan differences also have increased in views regarding the importance of reducing U.S. military commitments overseas and improving relations with U.S. allies. In 2004, 40% of Democrats listed reducing military commitments overseas as a top priority; that has risen to 57% in the current survey. By contrast, 29% of Republicans see this as a top priority, which is largely unchanged since 2004 (26%). Democrats also view improving relations with allies as increasingly important, while Republicans’ opinions have been more stable.

Since 2005, there has been a decline in the percentage of Democrats who rate protecting the nation from terrorism as a top policy priority (from 85% to 77%). Nine-in-ten Republicans view this as a top priority, which is virtually unchanged since 2005 (92%); consequently, the partisan gap has increased from seven points to 13 points.

Partisan differences in views about the importance of preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction have declined, as fewer members of both parties view this goal as a top priority. Currently, 64% of Republicans and 61% of Democrats say preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction should be a top priority; that compares with 82% and 63%, respectively, in 2005.

U.S. Global Image

Voters continue to say that the United States is less respected than it was in the past, though a smaller percentage sees that as a major problem. In May, for the first time since Pew began asking the question in 2004, a majority (58%) said they saw the loss of respect as “a major problem.” In the current survey, slightly less than half of voters (48%) see it that way.

The shift since May has come almost entirely among Republican voters. Only about three-in-ten Republicans (31%) now say the U.S. is less respected than in the past and that this is a major problem; in May, 43% of Republicans viewed the loss of global respect as a major problem.

These differences are reflected in how voters who support McCain and Obama view the issue of America’s global standing. About half (52%) of committed McCain voters say they think the U.S. is less respected; just 26% see this as a major problem. By contrast, 83% of voters who say they are certain to support Obama believe the U.S. is less respected; two-thirds (66%) say that is a major problem.

In this regard, swing voters are much closer to Obama supporters than to McCain supporters. A majority of swing voters (52%) believe that less international respect for the United States is a major problem, twice the percentage of certain McCain voters.

But swing voters are divided over which candidate would do the best job of gaining respect for the U.S. from other countries: 35% say Obama would do best and 34% say McCain. Voters who say they are certain to vote for McCain and Obama overwhelmingly say their candidate could do the best job of gaining respect for the United States.