The approaching presidential election will be the first since the Vietnam era in which foreign policy and national-security issues matter more to the public than the economy, a new poll finds.
Although most Americans think that the United States has less respect in the world than in the past, most also agree that protecting the nation from terrorists is a priority and pre-emptive military force is often or sometimes justified, according the survey released yesterday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
“Given the threat of terrorism, many Americans are willing to accept that tough times may require tough action,” said Michael Dimock, associate director of Pew.
He noted, however, that this doesn’t necessarily mean they support President Bush’s handling of Iraq.
The survey, conducted July 8 to 18, finds that 41 percent think war/foreign policy/terrorism is the most important problem facing the nation, with 26 percent choosing the economy.
An analysis by Pew and CFR of Gallup poll findings in the past several decades shows that until 1972, more Americans were concerned about foreign policy and security than the economy, but from 1976 to 2000, the reverse was true.
Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Mr. Bush’s campaign, was not surprised by the poll’s finding that foreign policy and security has surpassed the economy as top concern.
“It’s a reflection of the world we live in,” he said, adding that Mr. Bush “will not forget the lessons of September 11” and unlike Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, “will not wait until threats become imminent” to act.
Mr. Bush has staked out his re-election on national security and his war on terrorism since the September 11 attacks. Mr. Kerry, while also promising security, continues to hammer away at the state of the economy, thinking that voters are unhappy with the slow rate of jobs being created and will vote on this issue.
According to the Pew/CFR survey, conducted by the Princeton Survey Research Associates International, about as many people favor a decisive foreign policy as favor a cautious foreign policy — 62 percent and 66 percent respectively.
Eighty-eight percent of Americans say protecting the nation from terrorism is a top foreign-policy priority, and 60 percent think that pre-emptive force against a country is often or sometimes justified.
At the same time, 59 percent say the Bush administration is too quick to use force before exhausting diplomatic solutions. Seventy-four percent want the United States to have a shared leadership role in the world, compared with 11 percent who say the United States should be the single world leader.
Also, 67 percent say the United States is less respected by other countries than in the past, with this view being espoused by 87 percent of people who oppose the war with Iraq.
Chad Clanton, spokesman for Mr. Kerry’s campaign, touted this result of the poll, saying it showed that people “are obviously very concerned with the failures of George Bush’s go-it-alone” foreign policy.
“John Kerry has a plan to make America stronger at home and respected in the world,” Mr. Clanton said. “People understand how this administration’s go-it-alone foreign policy has squandered the good will of our key allies.”
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew center, said a disillusionment is setting in on the Iraq war, and the public is becoming more closely divided over whether it was the right move.
“As a consequence, we find many people saying that the United States lost [international] respect and that this is a significant problem. On the other hand, we find almost as much support for pre-emptive war as we did a year ago. … So we have this tension in public opinion,” he said.
The survey also showed that partisan gaps in regard to foreign-policy issues have widened recently, Mr. Kohut said. For example, although Republicans and Democrats had similar lists of foreign-policy priorities in October 2001, they are increasingly focused on different matters today.
An overwhelming 93 percent of Republicans cite protecting the United States from terrorism as a leading priority, while more Democrats rank protecting U.S. jobs as a high priority at 89 percent, compared with 86 percent of Democrats who said that about terrorism.
And while Republicans place higher priority on preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil, Democrats are more focused on preventing the spread of AIDS and stopping illegal drug trafficking.
Perhaps even more notably, since September 2001, a growing number of Democrats — now 51 percent — think U.S. wrongdoing may have contributed to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Republicans, however, reject that view even more adamantly than they did three years ago — 76 percent compared with 65 percent in 2001.
James Carafano, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said some of the poll’s findings reflect recent political rhetoric in the press and should not be taken seriously.
In particular, he said, the poll’s findings of concern about outsourcing of jobs and the loss of international respect are “really just people picking up on fear-mongering in the popular press rather than something that’s really true.”
Pew and CFR updated the survey in August with regards to Iraq and Mr. Bush. They that found 52 percent disapprove of how Mr. Bush is handling the Iraq situation and 42 percent approve.
However, 53 percent still say the United States was right to use military force against Iraq and 54 percent think troops should remain there for now. And 58 percent approve of Mr. Bush’s handling of terrorist threats.
Mr. Dimock said the differing positions being staked out by the two candidates are part of the public tension over foreign policy.
“Kerry wants to say, ‘Yes, I would protect America as strongly as Bush, but I would maintain its [international] respect.’ But Bush says, ‘You can’t worry about pleasing everybody,’” he said. “Somewhere in the middle is the battle for the public.”