Summary of Findings

Public support for the war in Iraq continues to decline, as a growing number of political independents are turning against the war. Overall, a 53% majority of Americans believe the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible – up five points in the past month and the highest percentage favoring a troop pullout since the war began nearly four years ago.

Confidence in a successful outcome in Iraq, which remained fairly high last year even as perceptions of the situation grew negative, also has eroded. The public is now evenly divided over whether the U.S. is likely to achieve its goals in Iraq – 47% believe it will definitely or probably succeed, while 46% disagree. Three months ago, 53% saw success as at least probable and 41% disagreed.

The latest nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Feb. 7-11 among 1,509 Americans, paints a bleak picture of public opinion about the war. Fully two-thirds of Americans (67%) say things are not going well with the U.S. military effort in Iraq, and solid majorities say the U.S. is losing ground in preventing a civil war (68%), reducing civilian casualties (66%), and defeating the insurgents militarily (55%).

In recent surveys, independents had been fairly evenly split over whether to bring the troops home. In January, 47% favored a troop withdrawal while 49% said the troops should remain in Iraq until the situation there is stabilized. But in the current survey, 55% of independents say they favor bringing the troops home as soon as possible, compared with 40% who believe the troops should remain.

More Democrats also support a troop withdrawal than did so in January (74% now, 66% then). By contrast, Republicans have been unwavering in their support for keeping the troops in Iraq. By roughly three-to-one (71%-23%), Republicans believe that U.S. forces should remain in Iraq until the situation there is stable, which is nearly identical to opinion among Republicans in January.

While support is increasing for bringing the troops home as soon as possible, most Americans still do not favor an immediate troop pull-out. When asked if the U.S. should remove all troops immediately or gradually over the next year or two, most of those who support a troop pullout – 35% of the general public – say the drawdown should be gradual; just 16% want the troops brought home immediately.

Americans also have become more skeptical that success can be achieved in Iraq. Again, the shift has been most striking among independents. Since the summer, the percentage of independents who believe the U.S. will definitely or probably achieve its goals there has fallen by 14 points (from 54% to 40%). The changes have been less dramatic among Democrats and Republicans; an overwhelming number of Republicans (77%) still say the U.S. either definitely or probably will achieve its goals in Iraq.

As was the case last month, the public expresses broad opposition to President Bush’s plan to dispatch an additional 21,000 troops to Iraq. By roughly two-to-one (63%-31%) the public opposes the ‘troop surge’ plan, which is virtually unchanged since January.

In recent weeks, the Bush administration also has highlighted the increasing threat posed by Iran, both because of its nuclear program and its reported support for anti-U.S. insurgents in Iraq. But public perceptions of the Iranian threat have not increased over the past year. Currently, a quarter of Americans volunteer Iran as the country representing the “greatest danger” to the U.S., the highest percentage naming any single country. In February 2006, a comparable number (27%) cited Iran as the greatest threat to the U.S. And the public is split evenly over whether it is more important for the U.S. to take a firm stand against Iranian actions or to try to avoid a military conflict with Iran (43% each).

While public perceptions of the situation in Iraq have deteriorated, there also is pessimism about the progress being achieved on a number of domestic issues. Across a series of 10 problem areas from the budget deficit to corruption to the environment, more Americans say the country is losing ground than believe it is making progress. The only issue on which there is a divided verdict is international terrorism; even here, more say the country is losing ground (38%) than say it is making progress (30%). On every other issue polled, the gap between those who say the country is making progress and losing ground is at least 20 percentage points.

The greatest pessimism is expressed about the federal budget deficit (64% say the U.S. is losing ground) and the gap between rich and poor (63% losing ground). Nearly as many say the country is losing ground on the way the health care system is working (60%) and on the issue of illegal immigration (59%).

President Bush’s standing with the public has changed little over the past few months. Just a third approve of the president’s job performance, unchanged from last month. And when asked to describe their impression of Bush in a single word, nearly twice as many use negative terms as positive ones. The balance of negative to positive descriptions has changed little in the past year (For more on the terms used to describe Bush, see pg. 13).

Sharp Decline in Iraq Perceptions

Two-thirds of Americans (67%) say that the U.S. military effort in Iraq is going not too well or not at all well. Just 30% say things are going very or fairly well. While perceptions of the state of affairs in Iraq have been deteriorating steadily since the summer of 2003, the past year has seen a particularly sharp decline; in February 2006, 51% said things in Iraq were going at least fairly well, 21 points higher than in the current survey. As a point of comparison, positive evaluations of progress in Iraq fell by about the same amount in the nearly three preceding years (24 points).

In large part, the steep downturn over the past year reflects a crumbling of the GOP unity over progress in Iraq. As recently as a year ago, more than three-quarters of Republicans (77%) believed things were going at least fairly well in Iraq – a position most Democrats and independents then rejected. But today, a bare 51% majority of Republicans say the situation in Iraq is going well, down 26 points from a year ago.

Democrats and independents, already downbeat about Iraq, have become even more so. By a margin of 83%-15%, Democrats say things are not going well in Iraq today, and more than two-thirds of independents (69%) share this view. Comparatively, Republicans remain somewhat upbeat. However, with 47% of Republicans also rating the situation poorly, the partisan gap over how things are going is narrower today than it has been since the earliest months of the conflict.

From Bad to Worse

Increasingly, Americans see a lack of progress in Iraq across a wide range of objectives. Most notably, roughly two-thirds (68%) believe the U.S. is losing ground in terms of preventing a civil war between various religious and ethnic groups, up from just 48% a year ago. And about as many (66%) believe that the U.S. is losing ground in reducing the number of civilian casualties in Iraq. In both of these areas, only about one-in-five believe that the U.S. is making progress.

The public’s impression of how the U.S. is doing in establishing democracy in Iraq has also shifted dramatically. As recently as June of last year, most felt progress was being made (55%). But today, just 40% believe the U.S. is making progress toward establishing a democracy, while 47% say we are losing ground.

Republicans Remain Confident of Success

Despite their widespread concerns about the current state of affairs in Iraq, most Republicans remain upbeat about the prospects for the future. More than three-quarters (77%) of Republicans believe the U.S. will definitely or probably succeed in achieving its goals in Iraq. About a third of Democrats (34%) believe the U.S. will succeed, while 61% say it will definitely or probably fail; somewhat more independents think the U.S. is likely to achieve its goals in Iraq.

Overall, public opinion is divided over the prospects for Iraq, with just as many predicting success (47%) as failure (46%). This is a stark slide in optimism overall in recent months. In September, the prevailing view (by a 57% to 35%) margin, was that the U.S. would succeed in achieving its goals in Iraq.

Younger Americans express greater confidence about prospects for success in Iraq than do older people. A slim majority of those under age 50 (52%) predict success in Iraq, compared with just 36% of people age 65 and older. Seniors are no more likely than people in other age categories to predict that America will fail in Iraq. Instead, they simply express greater uncertainty – many refuse to even hazard a guess as to how things might turn out.

Consistent GOP Support for Bush Policy

Just as Republicans remain confident of success in Iraq, they also have consistently supported the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. Roughly three-quarters (76%) say the war was the right decision, which is unchanged from January and virtually the same as in August 2006. Last February, GOP support for the decision to go to war was only modestly higher (81%).

Similarly, stable majorities of Republicans believe U.S. troops should remain in Iraq until the situation there is stabilized; 71% say that now, which also is about the same as in last August (72%) and February (73%).

Moreover, the number of Republicans who say more troops are needed in Iraq increased sharply after Bush announced the surge plan last month. Currently, 42% of Republicans say more U.S. forces are needed in Iraq; that is a bit lower than last month (47%). But twice as many Republicans now say more troops are needed than did so last August (42% vs. 21%).

Congress vs. Bush

Generally, public reactions to Bush’s troop increase have remained largely unchanged since last month. Roughly six-in-ten (63%) oppose the plan to send more troops into Iraq, and as many as 45% of Americans would like to see Congress try to block Bush’s plan by withholding funding for the additional forces. Among Democrats, roughly two-thirds (68%) want Congress to stop funding in an effort to block the troop buildup.

Overall, just 21% of Americans say the president has a clear plan for how to deal with Iraq, a figure that has not changed substantially over the past year. Among those who favor the troop increase, about half (52%) say the president has a clear plan for Iraq, compared with just 6% of people who oppose the surge.

Americans are just as skeptical about the Democrats’ approach on Iraq – 20% say the party leaders have a clear plan for how to deal with the situation, while 68% say they do not. Even among those who favor congressional action to block Bush’s proposed troop increase, just 29% believe the Democratic leaders have a clear alternative.

Where Do Republicans in Congress Stand?

The public is clearly aware of the opposition to Bush’s plan among Democrats in Congress. Eight-in-ten say most Congressional Democrats oppose Bush on this issue, and seven-in-ten say that a majority in Congress is against the surge.

But from the public’s perspective, there is far less clarity about where Republicans in Congress stand. While 44% say that Bush’s plan is backed by a majority of Congressional Republicans, 31% believe that most Republicans oppose the plan.

To some extent, this may be wishful thinking on the part of opponents of the surge, who are as likely to say that most Republicans side with them (38%) as side with Bush (39%). Proponents of Bush’s plan mostly believe that a majority of Republicans in Congress share their view (57%). But even here, 20% believe that Republicans in Congress oppose the president on this issue, and many others either think the party leadership is split (5%) or are unsure where they stand (18%).

Divided Over Iran

About a third of Americans (34%) say they have read or heard a lot about reports that Iran may be providing weapons to insurgent groups in Iraq. Public awareness of this issue is somewhat lower than it was regarding Iran’s nuclear program last September (41%).

Overall, Americans are evenly divided over whether it is more important to “take a firm stand” against Iran or to avoid a military conflict with Iran. The political and ideological differences over how to approach Iran resemble the divisions over Iraq. Nearly two-thirds of conservative Republicans (65%) and a smaller majority of moderate and liberal Republicans (55%) believe it is more important to take a firm stand against Iran; among Democrats, majorities of liberals (60%), and conservatives and moderates (51%), say it is more important to avoid a military conflict with Iran.

In addition, 40% of conservative Republicans cite Iran as the country that represents the greatest danger to the United States; no more than three-in-ten in any other partisan group identifies Iran as the country presenting the greatest danger. However, somewhat fewer conservative Republicans name Iran as the biggest threat to the U.S. than did so a year ago (48%).

Major Issues: Few See Progress

The public is generally dubious about whether progress is being achieved on major issues facing the country. Of 10 issues tested, international terrorism is the only one on which as many as 30% believe the country is currently making progress. Even on terrorism, however, the number saying progress is being made has declined (from 40% in March 2002).

Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the country is losing ground on the federal budget deficit (64%) and on the gap between rich and poor (63%). Nearly as many say the country is losing ground on the way the health care system is working (60%) and on the issue of illegal immigration (59%).

Majorities also say that the country is losing ground on moral standards and ethics (55%), and on environmental pollution (52%). Nearly half (47%) see the nation slipping on the availability of good paying jobs and on the issue of political corruption. Slightly fewer believe we are losing ground on the quality of public education (45%).

The largest change in recent perceptions has occurred on the environment, where there has been a 15-point increase since May 2005 in the view that the country is losing ground (from 37% to 52%). This shift has occurred as the debate over global climate change has intensified. A January Pew poll found that 77% of the public believes there is sol
id evidence that global warming is occurring, and 55% say that it is a problem that requires immediate government action.

Since May 2005, there has been a seven-point increase in the perception that the country is losing ground on the issue of illegal immigration. The level of concern about this issue (59%) now nearly matches its high point in Pew’s polling; in April 1995, 62% said the country was losing ground on illegal immigration.

Somewhat fewer Americans believe the country is losing ground on job availability and public education than did so in May 2005. About half (47%) say the country is losing ground on jobs, down from 55% in May 2005. The number saying that the country is losing ground on public education has slipped by five points (from 50% to 45%).

Partisan Perceptions of Progress

There are significant partisan differences in views of whether progress is being achieved, or lost, on each of these issues. The largest partisan gap is over the environment, where 63% of Democrats but only 31% of Republicans see the country losing ground.

However, the belief that the country is losing ground in environmental pollution has grown as much among Republicans as among Democrats over the past two years (up 12 points for both). An even bigger change occurred among independents; 54% now say we are losing ground on the environment, up from 38% in 2005.

Partisan differences on several other issues are nearly as large as over the environment. Three-quarters of Democrats say the country is losing ground on the federal budget deficit, compared with 47% of Republicans. Comparable differences are evident in views of whether the U.S. is losing ground on the rich-poor gap (28 points) and job availability (27 points).

The only issues on which more Republicans than Democrats say the country is losing ground are moral and ethical standards and illegal immigration. About two-thirds of Republicans (68%) say the U.S. is losing ground on illegal immigration, up from 58% in May 2005; just 53% of Democrats believe the country is losing ground on this issue. On moral standards, 67% of Republicans and 53% of Democrats say the country is losing ground. White evangelicals (71%), in particular, believe the U.S. is falling behind on this issue.

Lower Grades for the Economy

In December, there was a slight improvement in the public’s assessments of the economy, but this month’s poll shows a reversal of that trend. Fewer than one-in-three Americans (31%) currently rate the country’s economic conditions as excellent or good, while 68% say the state of the economy is either fair or poor.

Republicans, however, continue to see this issue very differently than do Democrats or independents. A majority (56%) of Republicans rate the economy as excellent or good, compared with only 15% of Democrats and 30% of independents. The partisan gap in views of the nation’s economy has increased dramatically in recent years; opinions of the economy were far less politically polarized during the 1990s.

There also is a wide gender gap in economic perceptions: 38% of men say the economy is excellent or good, compared with 26% of women.

Education and income also are associated with views of the economy, with college graduates (41% excellent or good) and people with annual household incomes of at least $100,000 (43% excellent or good) especially likely to say the country’s economic health is strong.

Public expectations about the future of the economy also have grown slightly more negative since the end of last year. In December, 22% said that in one year economic conditions in the country would be better, while 18% said they would be worse. In the current survey, 17% believe the economy will get better and 20% say it will get worse. Most Americans (58%) continue to believe the economy will be about the same in a year as it is now; 56% said that in December.

When asked about the job situation in their local community, Americans are slightly less negative. About four-in-ten (39%) say there are plenty of jobs available locally, which is virtually unchanged from December (40%). The jobs climate varies considerably by region, with opportunities much more common in the West (48% say plenty of jobs available) and South (46%) than in the Midwest (30%) or East (26%). Assessments also differ along party lines, with most Republicans (51%) seeing jobs available in their communities and most Democrats (59%) saying jobs are hard to find. Among independents, 38% say plenty of jobs are available and 47% say they are scarce.

Personal Finances

Americans are evenly divided between those who see their personal financial situation as fair or poor (50%) and those who rate it as excellent or good (49%). This measure also is basically unchanged from December, and there has been very little movement on this question over the last several years. Republicans (62% excellent or good) are much more positive about their personal finances than are Democrats (42% excellent or good) or independents (48% excellent or good). And positive views of personal finances are strongly correlated with income and education – 84% of those with household incomes of $100,000 or more and 68% of college graduates rate their finances as excellent or good.

Looking to the future, Americans remain optimistic that their personal financial situation will improve; 63% believe their finances will improve either a lot (11%) or some (52%) over the next year, down just slightly from December, when 67% (10% a lot, 57% some) took an optimistic view. Only 15% think their situation will get worse (12% a little worse, 3% a lot worse), while 19% volunteer that they think it will stay about the same.

The wealthiest Americans are among the most optimistic about their economic prospects over the coming year (74% of those with household incomes of $100,000 or greater say excellent or good), but even among those with household incomes of $20,000 or less, a narrow majority (52%) believe their situation will improve.

Bush…In a Word

George W. Bush’s job approval rating stands at 33% in the current survey, virtually unchanged from a month ago. The general dissatisfaction with the president also is reflected in the single-word descriptions that people use to describe their impression of the president. While the public has consistently offered a mix of positive and negative terms to describe Bush, the tone of the words used turned more negative in early 2006 and remains the case today. In the current survey, nearly half (47%) describe Bush in negative terms, such as “arrogant,” “idiot,” and “ignorant.” Just 27% use words that are clearly positive, such as “honest,” “good,” “integrity,” and “leader.”

As was the case a year ago, the word mentioned more frequently than any other is “incompetent.” By comparison, from 2000 through 2005 “honest” was the word most frequently volunteered description of the president. Even among the positive words used there has been a decided change in tone over the years. Superlatives such as “excellent” or “great” were relatively frequent in the early years of Bush’s presidency, but are offered less frequently today.