February 18, 2009

Obama Faces Familiar Divisions Over Anti-Terror Policies

No Change in Views of Torture, Warrantless Wiretaps

Overview

President Obama receives positive ratings for his handling of terrorism and most Americans say his administration’s policies will reduce the likelihood of another major attack on the United States. But as in recent years, the public remains deeply divided over how best to defend the nation against the threat of terrorism.

Americans approve of Obama’s handling of the threat of terrorism by more than two-to-one (50% approve vs. 21% disapprove), while 29% offer no opinion. Yet opinion is much more closely divided over Obama’s decision to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in the next year. Fewer than half (46%) approve of the decision while 39% disapprove.

There are wide partisan differences over Obama’s Guantanamo policy, as there were with many of the major anti-terrorism policies of the Bush administration. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats (64%) support the president’s decision to close Guantanamo, while 69% of Republicans oppose this decision.

By a wide margin (59% to 25%), the public says that his administration’s policies will make the chance of another major terrorist attack on the United States less likely rather than more likely. However, while majorities of Democrats (76%) and independents (62%) say that the Obama administration’s policies will make another terrorist attack less likely, just 29% of Republicans agree. Nearly half of Republicans (47%) say Obama’s policies will make another attack more likely.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted February 4-8 among 1,303 adults reached on landlines and cell phones, finds little change in the public’s long-term attitudes regarding a number of anti-terrorism policies. The public is divided on the issue of government surveillance of suspected terrorists; 50% say that it is generally right for the government to monitor telephone and email communications of suspected terrorists without court permission, while 45% say this is generally wrong. Opinions about this issue have changed little in the past three years.

Similarly, views have remained stable about whether the use of torture is justified in order to gain important information from suspected terrorists. More than four-in-ten say such tactics are often (16%) or sometimes (28%) justified; a majority says torture is rarely (20%) or never (31%) justified. Public attitudes regarding the use of torture against suspected terrorists have been largely unchanged since 2004.

There are continuing partisan differences over both warrantless wiretaps and torture of suspected terrorists. By greater than three-to-one (74% to 23%), Republicans say it is generally right for the government to monitor the communications of suspected terrorists without prior court permission. By contrast, a majority of independents (56%) view this policy as generally wrong, as do half of Democrats.

Opinions about the use of torture against suspected terrorists also differ widely by party, as has been the case over the past four years. While 43% of Democrats say torture is never justified, 15% of Republicans and 30% of independents hold that view.

Republicans and Democrats also disagree about whether the government’s anti-terror policies generally do not go far enough in adequately protecting the country, or go too far in restricting civil liberties. As was the case a year ago, a plurality (42%) says that anti-terrorism policies have not gone far enough to protect the country, while 36% say they have gone too far in restricting civil liberties. Nearly six-in-ten Republicans (59%) say anti-terrorism policies have not gone far enough to protect the country, compared with 38% of independents and the same percentage of Democrats.

Obama’s Early Ratings

The public gives Obama lower ratings for his handling of individual issues – the economy, foreign policy and terrorism – than for his overall job performance. Nearly two-thirds (64%) approve of Obama’s job performance, while 56% approve of his handling of the economy, 52% of his handling of foreign policy, and 50% for the threat of terrorism. As is typically the case with new presidents, sizable minorities decline to rate Obama’s job performance; this is particularly the case for views of his handling of foreign policy and terrorism. (For more on Obama’s job approval and his rating on the economy, see “Support for Stimulus Plan Slips, but Obama Rides High,” Feb. 9.)

There are sizable ideological differences among Republicans over Obama’s early performance. A plurality of moderate and liberal Republicans (46%) approve of the way Obama is handling his job as president. By contrast, just 28% of conservative Republicans approves of Obama’s job performance.

These differences also are reflected in opinions of Obama’s handling of foreign policy and terrorism. Regarding Obama’s handling of terrorist threats, for instance, more than twice as many moderate and liberal Republicans than conservative Republicans approve of his handling of the issue (43% vs. 17%).

No Change in Perceptions of Terrorists’ Capabilities

As with opinions about policies aimed at dealing with terrorism, the public’s assessments of terrorists’ abilities to launch another major attack against the United States have remained relatively stable over the course of the last few years.

A majority of the public (61%) believes that the ability of terrorists to launch a major attack is about the same (44%) or greater than (17%) it was at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Only about a third (35%) says that terrorists’ capabilities are less now than at the time of the attacks.

At the same time, the majority of the public (71%) continues to say the government has done very (22%) or fairly well (49%) in reducing the threat of terrorism. A year ago, 66% gave positive ratings to the government’s job in reducing the threat of terrorism.

How to Reduce Terrorist Threat

The public is evenly split as to whether increasing military operations against terrorist networks (41%) or stepping up diplomatic efforts in Muslim countries (41%) would be more effective in reducing the threat of terrorist attacks on the United States.

More than six-in-ten Republicans (62%) say it would be more effective to increase military operations against terrorist networks, while just 22% support increased diplomatic efforts. In contrast, by about two-to-one (57% to 28%), Democrats favor increased diplomatic efforts over expanded military operations. Independents, mirroring overall public opinion, are nearly evenly divided (41% favor military operations, while 38% say diplomatic efforts).

Opinion among college graduates on this issue is substantially different from those who have not attended college. A majority of college graduates believe that the threat of terrorism is more effectively addressed by increasing diplomatic efforts (54%); by contrast, those with a high school education or less are more likely to favor increased military operations (46% vs. 32% who favor diplomatic efforts).


As has been the case since 2006, more Americans believe decreasing – rather than increasing – the U.S. military presence abroad is the more effective way to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks on the United States. Half of Americans (50%) now believe that decreasing the U.S. military presence overseas would be the more effective policy, while just 31% say an increased presence would be more effective.

A majority (62%) of Democrats say decreasing the U.S. military presence overseas would have a greater impact in reducing the terrorist threat; half of independents agree. By contrast, 48% of Republicans say that increasing the U.S. military presence abroad is the more effective way to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks.