America the pensive

Posted: May 07, 2007 12:01 AM
America the pensive

Every so often, the Gallup Poll asks Americans what they think should be the government's highest priorities and to rate them in terms of their importance.

The latest list of top-five concerns is a familiar one, but some of the open-ended responses to Gallup's pollsters drew a few surprises and, in some cases, a more nuanced view of thorny issues than ever get reported on the nightly news shows.

Iraq, of course, is No. 1 on the list and has been since March 2004, when casualties mounted and support for the war began to weaken. Now "close to six in 10 Americans say the Iraq war was a mistake," Gallup said.

A majority of Americans is opposed to the surge of troops at the heart of President Bush's plan to reduce the violence there and stabilize Baghdad. But, interestingly, they do not favor enacting any legislation that would deny funding for the surge.

Bush's argument during last week's legislative showdown was focused on the threat of holding up funding for the troops, and he won that political battle hands down.

However, a majority of Americans favor a timetable for withdrawal, though we are still "sharply divided along party lines, with Democrats generally supportive and Republicans strongly opposed." That pretty much mirrors last week's vote in Congress that fell significantly short of the two-thirds needed to override Bush's veto of the Democrats' pullout bill.

Close behind Iraq is the issue of terrorism and national security, which is the subtext for the war in Iraq. People who do not support the war may nevertheless worry about what impact a full-scale withdrawal would have on our own vulnerability to another terrorist attack here at home. Notably, Bush and the Republicans fare much better on issues having to do with terrorism.

While Democratic leaders have been sharply and relentlessly critical of the administration's anti-terrorism methods, alleging they have gone too far and threaten our civil liberties, a majority of Americans do not share those concerns.

"Overall, Americans show fairly broad tolerance for strong anti-terrorism measures. Relatively few Americans think the Patriot Act 'goes too far' in compromising civil liberties to fight terrorism; a majority either thinks it is about right or would like it to go further," Gallup found. Remember the hue and cry from Democrats and the news media about the administration's telephone intercepts between terrorists from abroad and their agents here at home?

Well, Gallup said, "Americans favor the Bush administration's efforts to wiretap telephone calls of suspected terrorists without a court order." The economy is in third place and largely because of higher gasoline prices. Economic concerns eased in the fall of 2006 and early 2007 when the price of gasoline fell, but they have risen again as Americans were hit by $3-a-gallon gas prices for regular.

Significantly, Americans continue to say they are "more positive about their personal financial situations," something that has probably improved for millions of workers who have seen their 401(k) retirement investments skyrocket during the latest bull-market rally on Wall Street.

Still, about half of all Americans say the economy is getting worse. Their complaints point to a lack of money, too much debt and the higher costs of health care, college, homeownership and gas prices. Energy comes in fourth, and this is where Americans appear to be changing their minds on what to do about the rising costs of energy and the growing demand for it.

Faced with the two approaches to our energy needs -- conservation or increasing production (favored by the administration) -- "Americans have consistently chosen conservation by a wide margin," Gallup said.

But lately, as news of higher gas prices has followed reports of falling production, "the percentage choosing conservation has dropped in recent months." At the same time, the percentage favoring the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and drilling (sought by the administration and opposed by Democrats) "has increased over the past three years."

Illegal immigration is now fifth, down from No. 3 in January. But Americans have a more positive attitude about the benefits of immigration overall. "Americans view the effects of immigration positively and, while few want to see immigration levels increased, slightly more want them kept at present levels rather than decreased," Gallup said.

A "substantial majority of Americans favor most efforts to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into this country," but about six in 10 also "favor a plan that would allow illegal immigrants the opportunity to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain requirements over a period of time." About one-fourth "want to see all illegal immigrants deported back to their home country."

However, Gallup also found that Americans were "somewhat conflicted on the issue -- they believe illegal immigrants are a drain on public taxes and services but also acknowledge the contribution of illegal immigrants to the U.S. labor force."