January 14, 2010

Obama Image Unscathed By Terrorism Controversy

Section 3: Terrorism and National Security

In the wake of the failed terrorist attack on a jetliner on Christmas Day, the public has become far more concerned that anti-terrorism policies fail to protect the country – and far less concerned that they restrict civil liberties.

In the current survey, 58% say their greater concern is that government anti-terrorism policies have not gone far enough to adequately protect the country; just 27% are more concerned that the policies have gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties. That represents a dramatic shift of opinion since November, when nearly as many expressed civil liberties concerns (36%) as national security concerns (40%).

Increasing concern over national security is evident across most demographic and political groups. In the current survey, however, fewer than half (42%) of people younger than 30 say their greater concern is that anti-terrorism policies have not gone far enough to protect the country; about as many young people (44%) are more concerned that policies have gone too far in restricting civil liberties. Among older age groups, clear majorities express more concern about government policies failing to protect the country.

In addition, majorities of Democrats and independents (55% each) now say their bigger concern is that anti-terrorism policies have not gone far enough to protect the country; just 35% in each group expressed that view in November. There has been less change among Republicans, who already were more likely to express national security concerns; currently, 68% say their bigger worry is that anti-terrorism policies have not gone far enough to protect the country, up from 57% two months ago.

Government Anti-Terror Ratings Slip

The public also gives the government somewhat lower ratings today for reducing the threat of terrorism, although the change has been far less striking than in views about the tradeoff between national security and civil liberties. Currently, 65% say the government is doing very well (15%) or fairly well (50%) in reducing the threat of terrorism while 33% say it has done not too well (21%) or not at all well (12%). In November, 73% gave the government positive marks for reducing the terrorist threat compared with 22% who said it had not done well.

Notably, there were only modest partisan differences in views of the government’s handling of the terrorist threat in November and last February. But positive ratings among Republicans have fallen 14 points since November (from 73% to 59% very/fairly well). Democratic opinions have changed little in this period and, as a consequence, the partisan gap has more than tripled (from five points to 17 points).

Currently, a third (33%) says the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack against the U.S. is greater than it was at the time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; 35% say their ability to strike the U.S. is the same as at was then, and 29% say terrorists are less able to mount a major attack. The proportion saying terrorists now are more able to launch an attack is about the same as in November (29%) and July 2005 (28%), previous high points for this measure. Last February, just 17% said that terrorists have a greater ability to strike the U.S. than at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks.

No Increase in View that Obama Has Made U.S. “Less Safe”

In the aftermath of the attempted jetliner attack, there has been virtually no change in opinions about whether the policies of the Obama administration have made the U.S. safer or less safe from terrorism when compared with the policies of the Bush administration. Currently, 46% say that, when compared with Bush administration policies, the Obama administration’s policies have not made a difference; 28% say they have made the nation safer while 22% say they have made the nation less safe. Last June, there was a nearly identical balance of opinion on this measure.

Partisan views of the Obama, Bush comparison also are largely unchanged. In the current survey, 46% of Republicans say Obama’s policies have made the U.S. less safe from terrorism while about the same percentage of Democrats say they have made the country safer. About half of independents (51%) say Obama’s policies have not made a difference compared with Bush’s; 22% say his policies have made the nation safer while an identical percentage say they have made the country less safe.

Whole-Body Scans Favored

The public overwhelmingly supports a requirement to make all airport passengers subject to whole-body scans that can see through clothing. Nearly three-quarters (74%) favor requiring such scans for all passengers while 22% are opposed.

While clear majorities across all demographic and political categories favor the use of whole-body scans, young people and liberal Democrats are somewhat less supportive than are other groups. Two-thirds of those younger than 30 (67%) favor making all passengers subject to whole-body scans; that compares with about three-quarters of those in older age groups. Among liberal Democrats, 61% favor the use of fully body scans while 32% are opposed, the lowest level of support within any political group.