Public Opinion Watch

(covering polls and related articles from the week of September 26–October 2, 2005)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

  • Who’s Too Close to Whom?
  • Economic Pessimism Update
  • Has the Public Turned Away from Internationalism?

Who’s Too Close to Whom?

The latest Newsweek poll has some interesting results on which political parties are viewed as too close to which interest groups. The poll tested reactions to six groups: big business; labor unions; oil companies; the legal profession; rich people; and minority interest groups. Interestingly, while the public overwhelmingly believes that the Republican Party is “too close” to big business (73 percent), oil companies (70 percent) and rich people (68 percent), there are no similarly lopsided sentiments about the Democratic Party. The highest number the Democrats get is for labor unions, where 52 percent see the Democrats as being too close, followed by 48 percent who feel the same way about the Democrats and minority groups. Finally, and counter-intuitively, the survey shows identical judgments on whether the Democrats and Republicans are too close to the legal profession. For each party, the public is exactly split, 43-43, on whether that party is too close to the legal profession.

A couple of other intriguing results from the poll are worth flagging. When asked whether they see Bush more as a good manager who focuses on what's important and delegates well or as a bad manager who doesn't know enough about what's going on around him and below him, the public opts for the bad manager characterization, 49-43. And when asked whether the Department of Homeland Security has made Americans safer, a 49-45 plurality says the Department has not made Americans safer.

Economic Pessimism Update

Last week, I reviewed recent data showing the deep pessimism of the public about the economy. One piece of evidence I touched on was the August report on the University of Michigan’s Survey of Consumers – which was quite negative – and the projected September result for that survey, which was expected to be even worse. The September report for the Michigan Survey of Consumers is now out and it is indeed worse than the August report. Just how negative it is is well-summarized by the lead from the September report:

“Consumer confidence plunged in September to its lowest level in more than a dozen years. ‘High gas prices had a devastating impact on consumers’ budgets and caused consumers to expect a worsening financial situation during the year ahead,’ according to Richard Curtin, the Director of the University of Michigan’s Surveys of Consumers. Over the past fifty years, such steep and widespread declines in confidence have typically triggered recessions. ‘Among the prior declines that sparked recessions, the most comparable situation was in August of 1990, when consumer confidence fell from the about the same level, by about the same amount, and prompted by the same steep increases in gas prices,’ noted Curtin. The key issue is whether the rise in Federal spending due to Katrina and Rita will be sufficient to offset the decline in consumer spending. ‘While the economy may not be technically falling into recession, the data indicate that consumer spending will weaken in the months ahead,’ said Curtin.

The Index of Consumer Sentiment was 76.9 in the September 2005 survey, down from 89.1 in August and 96.5 in July. The one month decline of 12.2 points equaled the largest monthly decline recorded since 1978; the combined August and September decline was the largest two month decline on record, falling a total of 19.6 Index-points. The Index of Consumer Expectations, a closely watched component of the Index of Leading Economic Indicators, fell to 63.3 in September, down from 76.9 in August and 85.5 in July. The one-month decline was the second largest and the two-month decline was the largest in the survey’s history.”

Food for thought. We shall see if some of the rather dire possibilities raised by survey director Curtin start manifesting themselves this fall.

Has the Public Turned Away from Internationalism?

Given the unilateralist actions of the current administration, one might ask whether these actions are, at least in part, driven by changes in public opinion. Has the public turned away from internationalism, as the global system has become more difficult for America to manage – and more dangerous, as shown by the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

The answer to that question appears to be no. One question that has been asked since 1947 taps whether Americans are basically internationalist or isolationist: “Do you think it will be best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs or if we stay out of world affairs?” In the late 1940s, this question was asked three times by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) with an average of 69 percent saying the country should play an active part in world affairs. In 2002 and 2004, this question was asked by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR) and the average proportion saying the U.S. should play an active role in the world was … 69 percent.

So, no change whatsoever between these endpoints. Of course, there has been some fluctuation in these sentiments in between the endpoints. The internationalist view appears to have been somewhat stronger in the period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. And there was a weakening of this view after the end of the Vietnam War, bottoming out in the early 1980s and then strengthening later in that decade and into the 1990s. And now, with the post-9/11 measurements, we are back to where we started.

That’s just a general internationalist view, however. What of commitment to international institutions like the U.N.? This is a bit more difficult to assess, given the complete lack of relevant questions that have been asked throughout the post-World War II era. However, data from a range of survey questions across different time periods suggest that general support for the U.N., and belief in its importance, has remained stable, even if perception of the U.N.’s efficacy has probably declined.

The extent to which the public continues to be invested in the U.N. and its potential role can be illustrated by a couple of questions from the 2004 CCFR survey. By 66-29, the public agreed that the U.S. should be willing to make decisions within the U.N., even if that means that the U.S. may sometimes not be able to follow its first choice of course of action. And, by 74-20, the public favored having a standing U.N. peacekeeping force selected, trained and commanded by the U.N.

Other questions from that CCFR survey show support for a wide range of international treaties and institutions beyond the U.N.: 87 percent for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; 80 percent for the landmine use treaty; 76 percent for the International Criminal Court; and 71 percent for the Kyoto global warming accord.

What about support for multilateral action, more generally? In a 2003 Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll, 76 percent thought the U.S. should try to solve international problems together with other countries, rather than go it alone or ignore them. And in the 2004 CCFR poll, 73 percent thought the most important lesson of the September 11th attacks was that the U.S. needed to work more closely with other countries to fight terrorism, not that the U.S. needed to act on its own more to fight terrorism.

These results suggest little change in public support for internationalism. Thus, the turn away from internationalism in U.S. foreign policy cannot be blamed on the shifting attitudes of the public= On the contrary, it would appear, as in other policy areas, that the public’s preferences are simply being ignored.

Ruy Teixeira is a joint fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation.