Summary of Findings

Public concern over Iran’s nuclear program has risen dramatically in the past few months. Today, 27% of Americans cite Iran as the country that represents the greatest danger to the United States. In October, just 9% pointed to Iran as the biggest danger to the U.S., while there was far more concern over Iraq, China and North Korea. Nearly two-thirds (65%) believe that Iran’s nuclear program is a major threat to the U.S., placing it on par with North Korea’s nuclear program, and far ahead of China’s emerging power among possible threats to the United States.

Overwhelming numbers believe that if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons it would likely launch attacks on Israel (72%), and the U.S. or Europe (66%). There is even greater agreement that a nuclear-armed Iran would be likely to provide nuclear weapons to terrorists (82%).

The public is clearer in its view of the potential threat posed by Iran than in what to do about it. More Americans worry that we will wait too long than act too quickly in dealing with Iran’s nuclear problem. However, far more Americans say the United Nations or the European Union ­ rather than the U.S. ­ should take the lead in dealing with the crisis.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Feb. 1-5 among 1,502 Americans, finds that President Bush received no bounce from his Jan. 31 State of the Union address. Bush’s approval rating stands at 40% ­ largely unchanged over the past month. Interest in Bush’s speech was fairly modest ­ about as many paid very close attention to the recent layoffs at the Ford Motor Co. (25%) as to the State of the Union (24%). The public continues to take a mixed view of Bush’s performance on issues ­ generally positive on terrorism (53% approval) but negative on virtually every domestic issue. In two key areas, health care and the deficit, Bush’s ratings have declined markedly over the past year, to below 30% on each issue.

But the president appears to be making headway with his defense of the government’s authority to conduct warrantless wiretaps of suspected terrorists. By 54%-43%, the public believes it is generally right for the government to monitor communications of Americans suspected of having terrorist ties without first obtaining permission from the courts. In early January, the public was evenly divided over this issue (48% generally right/47% generally wrong). Moderate and liberal Republicans, in particular, are now more supportive of the program. In January, moderate and liberal Republicans favored warrantless monitoring of suspected terrorists by 56%-41%; now by about three-to-one (71%-24%) they feel the program is generally right.

The survey finds sweeping public agreement with Bush’s assertion that “America is addicted to oil,” but some skepticism about whether the U.S. can wean itself from foreign oil within the next two decades. Fully 85% say the U.S., as a country, is addicted to oil. Half of Americans say the U.S. can end its reliance on foreign oil sources within the next 20 years, while 42% think we cannot.

Bush Rating Steady Since Fall

President Bush’s approval rating has held fairly steady over the past month. The current survey, conducted over the five nights immediately following his State of the Union address, finds 40% approving of his overall job performance, compared with 38% in January. Looking back over the past six months, Bush’s overall job approval has held steady, with only a slight dip to 36% in November.

However, Bush’s job rating has declined over the past year, from 46% in February 2005. Two areas of performance stand out as particularly problematic for the president over this period ­ health care and the budget deficit. While Bush was already receiving generally negative evaluations on health care policy a year ago (when 36% approved, 51% disapproved), things have gotten worse. Today, barely one-in-four Americans (28%) approve of the president’s performance on health care policy, while 57% disapprove.

And while the president received mixed ratings on his handling of the federal budget deficit a year ago (41% approved, 46% disapproved) opinion has turned decidedly critical today. By more than two-to-one (60% to 27%) more disapprove than approve today.

For both the deficit and health care, the overall decline reflects a sizable erosion of support within the president’s partisan base. The share of Republicans who approve of the president’s handling of the budget deficit has fallen from 75% a year ago to 53% today, and GOP approval on health care has declined from 67% to 55%. It is worth noting, however, that Bush’s approval ratings among Democrats and independents on these issues were already so low a year ago that there was little room for them to fall further over the past year.

State of the Union Draws Less Interest

Just 24% of Americans say they paid very close attention to news about the president’s State of the Union address. Many more people (36%) followed news about the president’s 2003 address in which he made his case for taking military action in Iraq.

As was the case in 2003, Republicans are almost twice as likely as Democrats and independents to follow news about the address very closely (36% vs. 19% of Democrats and 20% of independents). But even among Republicans, only a quarter (24%) of moderate and liberal Republicans paid very close attention, compared with 43% of conservative Republicans.

Curing an Oil Addiction

While just three-in-ten approve of the president’s handling of energy policy (55% disapprove), the vast majority agree with the president’s assertion that the nation is addicted to oil. Overall, 85% agree with this statement, including 82% of both Republicans and Democrats along with 90% of independents. It is an idea that finds broad assent even among those who paid little attention to Bush’s speech; people who paid no attention at all to news about the State of the Union address are about as likely to say the U.S. is addicted to oil as are those who followed the speech very closely.

Half of Americans believe the U.S. can end its reliance on foreign oil sources within the next two decades, while 42% think it cannot. Democrats are considerably more pessimistic in this regard than are Republicans. Most Republicans (58%) say America can kick its oil habit within the next 20 years, compared with just 43% of Democrats.

The public continues to overwhelmingly back higher fuel efficiency standards and research on alternative energy sources as a means of addressing the nation’s overall energy needs. Nuclear energy, while gaining some support over the past five months, remains a relatively unpopular option. And while public support for tax cuts for alternative energy has increased slightly, fewer Americans now favor providing tax cuts to energy companies to do more oil exploration.

Currently, 44% favor promoting the increased use of nuclear power, while 49% are opposed. Overall support for nuclear energy is up slightly from 39% in September. Republicans (56%) are much more likely than Democrats (39%) or independents (38%) to favor this option.

On the heels of reports of record profits at Exxon/Mobil and other energy corporations, support for giving tax cuts to energy companies to do more oil exploration has decreased from 52% in September to 44% today. While this shift in opinion has occurred across the board, there remains a ste
ep division of opinion across party lines. Currently 57% of Republicans favor tax cuts to energy companies to stimulate exploration, compared with 37% of Democrats and 38% of independents.

But there is a consensus across party lines regarding other energy options. In particular, 86% of Americans favor requiring better fuel efficiency for cars, trucks and SUVs, 82% want increased federal funding for research on wind, solar and hydrogen technology, and 78% would favor tax cuts to energy companies researching these kinds of alternative energy sources. Roughly two-in-three favor spending more on subway, rail and bus systems and increased funding for ethanol research. On most of these proposals Republicans and Democrats are largely in agreement. The only ideas that garner somewhat less support from Democrats than from Republicans are tax cuts to energy companies to develop wind, solar and hydrogen technology and federal funding for ethanol research.

Just over half of the public (52%) say that more energy conservation and regulation on energy use and prices should be the priority for U.S. energy policy, while 41% believe the U.S. should emphasize exploration, mining and drilling and the construction of new power plants. This balance of opinion has fluctuated only marginally over the past five years. Beyond partisanship, there are substantial divides between men and women, and younger and older Americans in this view. Women favor conservation over exploration by a 57% to 36% margin while men are divided evenly (47% to 46%). And people age 18-29 favor conservation by more than two-to-one (66% to 28%) while older generations are more divided, with those ages 65 and older most likely to see exploration as the main priority (49%).

Major Threats: Iran, N. Korea

Public concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions is evident in a comparison of public assessments of threats to the United States posed by each of several international concerns. Nearly two-thirds (65%) say Iran’s nuclear program is a “major threat” to the U.S.; 61% expressed this view in October 2005. Another 24% view it was a minor threat. About as many (60%) say North Korea’s nuclear program poses a major threat to the U.S. Fewer people see other international concerns as threatening. Only about half (47%) say China’s emergence as a world power represents a major threat to the U.S. Far fewer say the election of left-wing political leaders in Latin America (24%) and growing authoritarianism in Russia (22%) are major threats.

At least part of the concern expressed by the public about Iran’s intentions may stem from the belief that Iran already possesses nuclear weapons. Experts in nuclear proliferation generally agree that Iran does not yet possess a nuclear weapon, but much of the public thinks it does. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in October 2005 found that 55% of Americans believe Iran already possessed nuclear weapons ­ about the same number who recognize that Great Britain and India possess this technology.

Despite the anxiety about Iran’s nuclear activities, there is not a consensus that the U.S. should immediately act to deal with the situation. A narrow majority (53%) worry that the U.S. will wait too long, but 34% say they worry the U.S. will act too quickly. Democrats are evenly divided about whether the U.S. will be too quick or too slow to act, while independents on balance say their bigger concern is the U.S. will act too slowly (by 51%-37%). A large majority of Republicans (68%) worry the U.S. will be too slow.

Regardless of their views on how quickly the U.S. should act, a large majority wants the United Nations to take the lead in dealing with the Iranian nuclear problem.

More than three-quarters of Americans (78%) say the U.N. should take the lead on this issue, compared with just 17% who say the U.S. A smaller number, but still a majority (51%), says that the European Union, rather than the United States, should take the lead in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

Attention to News about Iran

About a third (32%) say they have heard a lot about Iran’s announcement that it will resume research on nuclear technology; another 46% say they have heard at least a little. Only about one-in-five Americans (21%) say they have heard nothing at all about this issue.

People who have heard the most about Iran’s research on nuclear technology are more likely to name Iran as the country representing the greatest danger to the U.S., but less likely to think Iran would attack the U.S. directly. Among people who have heard a lot about these developments, 43% volunteer Iran as the single biggest threat to the United States. This compares to 24% of people who have heard a little about recent events in Iran, and just 5% of those who have heard nothing at all.

But when asked what Iran might be likely to do if it developed nuclear weapons, those who have heard a lot about Iran in the news are the least likely to believe Iran might attack the U.S. or Europe directly. Instead, they place a higher likelihood on the possibility that Iran might attack Israel or provide nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations.

Public Remains Divided Over Iraq

A narrow majority of Americans (51%) say the original decision to use force in Iraq was right, up from 45% a month ago. But at the same time the proportion saying we will definitely or probably fail in establishing a stable government in Iraq also edged up from 34% to 39%. Overall views of how things are going in Iraq remained level with 13% saying things are going very well, 38% fairly well, 29% not too well and 17% not at all well. And the public remains divided about evenly over whether we should keep troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized (50%) or bring U.S. troops home as soon as possible (46%).

Civil Liberties

The revelation that President Bush authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on telephone communications without a court warrant has caused no surge in public concern about civil liberties. In fact, there are signs that the president has achieved at least some success over the past month in persuading the public that his policies are the right ones for the country.

By a 50% to 33% margin, more Americans are concerned that the government hasn’t yet gone far enough in protecting the country against terrorism than are concerned that the government has gone too far in restricting civil liberties. Concern about government infringement on civil liberties has remained unchanged over the past two years, and has not moved in response to the NSA spying controversy.

Public interest in the wiretap story, if anything, is growing. Fully 37% say they have been following news on Bush authorizing wiretaps of suspected terrorists very closely, which is nearly as many as paid close attention to the situation in Iraq. That compares with 32% who followed this story very closely last month. Democrats, Republicans and independents show similar levels of interest.

Iraq Leads News Interest

Roughly four-in-ten Americans (39%) say they paid very close attention generally to news about the current situation in Iraq, while nearly as many (35%) say they have been tracking news on American reporters who have been captured or injured very closely.

A quarter of Americans say they followed news reports on major job cuts at Ford Motor Co. very closely, while 20% paid close attention to reports about the financial links between lobbyists and members of Congress. About the same number (18%) tracked news of the election victories by Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections.