NPR logo Poll: Terror Fears Up; Views On Obama Hold Steady


Poll: Terror Fears Up; Views On Obama Hold Steady

Obama speaks at the White House Jan. 7 about an alleged terrorist attempt to destroy a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner. Charles Dharapak/AP hide caption

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Charles Dharapak/AP

Obama speaks at the White House Jan. 7 about an alleged terrorist attempt to destroy a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner.

Charles Dharapak/AP

Americans' faith in the ability of government to reduce the threat of terrorism declined in the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing attempt aboard a Detroit-bound passenger jet, a new national survey shows.

And though the survey by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press showed that Americans are more fearful of a terrorist attack now than they have been in a half-dozen years, the incident did not appear to affect President Obama's standing with the public.

"After any crisis, there's a certain rallying among the public and an awareness of how difficult these situations really are," says Michael Dimock, the center's associate director of research. "People realize the risk and give the benefit of the doubt."

"But maybe the larger factor here is that there is a lot going on right now," he says. "While this terrorism event certainly drew concern, it didn't necessarily change the big picture."

By The Numbers

  • Obama's job approval rating: 49 percent (the same as pre-attack)

Percent of respondents who said that ...

  • Obama is trustworthy: 66 percent

  • Obama is a strong leader: 62 percent

  • Obama is able to "get things done": 57 percent

  • Obama's policies have made the nation safer than it was under Bush: 28 percent (unchanged from six months ago)

  • Anti-terrorism policies had "gone too far in restricting civil rights": 27 percent

Source: Pew Research Center

That picture, he says, includes a struggling economy, debate over a health care overhaul and two wars.

The telephone survey of 1,504 adults was conducted nearly two weeks after Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly set his underwear on fire in an attempt to ignite explosives on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam.

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Views On Obama Steady

In the attack's aftermath, Obama, saying the buck stops with him, took responsibility for the national security system's failure to act on evidence in hand that pointed to Abdulmutallab as a terrorism threat.

But those surveyed made clear that that incident did not affect their perception of how the president has addressed the terrorism issue. In fact, his approval job approval rating remained at 49 percent — the same as pre-attack.

As he did in Pew's November survey, Obama continued to gets his highest approval marks for his handling of terrorism.

Six in 10 of those surveyed say they think Obama is a strong leader, with 32 percent saying he isn't. Pew researchers found that though positive views about the president have slipped since he took office, more than 60 percent of Americans still find him trustworthy, and 57 percent say he's able to "get things done."

(Obama's rating on the issue of health care, however, plummeted to its lowest level, with just 38 percent of those surveyed characterizing it as his strongest issue. That's down from 51 percent in April of last year, before the acrimonious national debate on Congress' controversial health care overhaul legislation began.)

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Asked how safe from terrorism Obama's policies have made the United States, compared with those of former President George W. Bush, 46 percent said there is no difference. The response was up just 2 percentage points from a similar survey in June last year.

Twenty-eight percent of those surveyed said Obama's policies have made the nation safer than it was under Bush, a response unchanged from six months ago. And 22 percent said it is now less safe, a 1 percentage point increase from June.

Less Confidence In U.S. Tactics

When asked how well the government is doing in reducing the threat of terrorism, the number of respondents who replied "very or fairly well" declined to 65 percent from 73 percent last November. And those who replied "not to/or at all well" spiked in the same period to 33 percent from 22 percent.

"It's a significant drop," Dimock says, "but not into negative territory. People recognize that this is a tough job."

Though many travelers have expressed at least some exasperation at the inconveniences and personal intrusion caused by increased airport screening and checks, a majority of those surveyed — 58 percent — said that government anti-terrorism policies hadn't gone far enough. That's up from 40 percent who said the same in a November survey.

Pew researchers also found a lessening of concern about the potential for anti-terrorism policies to infringe on civil liberties.

Just 27 percent said that anti-terrorism policies had "gone too far in restricting civil rights," down from 36 percent in polls taken last year.

But the public's taste and tolerance for steps that have civil liberties implications tend to ebb and flow over time, Dimock says. Right now, because of the recent attempted bombing, the balance has tipped toward security.

So, though Obama's personal image remains strong, the mood of the American people continues to be gloomy, Dimock says, and the terrorism incident contributed to a pervasive feeling that not much of anything is going right. Though the survey shows that people haven't fundamentally lost confidence in Obama's ability to tackle problems.

"But the public mood affects Obama. Now these are his problems, not just what he inherited," he says.