State of the Union 2015: How Americans see the nation, their leaders and the issues
President Obama and other administration officials have been road-testing several possible themes and proposals that are likely to come up in his State of the Union speech today. Here’s a look at public opinion on the issues that Obama and Republicans say they will push in the coming year, as well as Americans’ views of their leaders and how well (or not) they think things are going in the country.
1What’s most important: Domestic issues. Despite a year of turmoil and new threats abroad, Americans still overwhelmingly say it is more important for Obama to focus on domestic policy than foreign policy, although by a smaller margin than previous years. The public has put the priority on domestic matters each year during Obama’s presidency. This year, 67% hold that view, lower than previous years, when it was as high as eight-in-ten or more. One-in-five Americans want Obama to focus more on foreign policy; that figure had been in single digits the previous three years.
2Terrorism: For the first time in five years, as many Americans cite defending the U.S. against terrorism (76%) as a top policy priority as say that about strengthening the nation’s economy (75%). There has been little change from previous years in the public’s worries about an imminent threat and about seven-in-ten (72%) Americans say the government is doing very or fairly well in reducing the threat of terrorism.
3Economy: Since the end of the recession, the share of Americans who cited the economy and the jobs situation as a top priority for Obama and Congress has declined. Three-quarters of Americans say strengthening the economy should be a top priority, down 11 points from 2013. Perhaps more important, almost twice as many expect the economy to be better than worse a year from now (31% vs. 17%). But just 16% of Americans regard the economic recovery so far as a strong one. See our key data fact sheet for more background on economic issues.
4Immigration: Republicans, now in charge of both houses of Congress, have already begun an effort to roll back Obama’s executive actions expanding the number of unauthorized immigrants permitted to work and stay in the country. Americans are divided over Obama’s move with half disapproving of the actions and 46% in support. It’s a big partisan issue: About eight-in-ten Republicans (82%) disapprove of Obama’s executive actions and about seven-in-ten Democrats (71%) approve. See our key data fact sheet for background on public opinion on other immigration issues, including our latest estimate of the unauthorized immigrant population.
5Cybersecurity and privacy: Obama plans to announce initiatives to enhance cybsersecurity for businesses and the government, as well as safeguards against identity theft and intrusions into peoples’ privacy. This comes at a time when our surveys show the public has little confidence in the security of their everyday communications. Fully 91% of adults agree that “consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.” Just 2% of American adults view social media sites as “very secure,” while 14% feel “somewhat secure” sharing sensitive information on social media. See our fact sheet on cybersecurity and privacy for more background on these issues.
6Community colleges: Obama recently unveiled an expensive plan to provide free community college education for millions of Americans. The proposal could have a significant impact on Hispanics. Hispanics make up a growing share of the nation’s nearly 7 million community college students. In 2013, 22% of all enrolled public two-year college students were Hispanics — a greater share than their makeup of all students – and that figure has risen from 14% in 2000. The share of black students in public community colleges increased at a much lower rate over the same time period, from 12% to 15%, while the share of white and Asian/Pacific Islander students declined.
7Energy and environment: There are two issues in particular this year on which Obama and Republicans are facing off: building of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canada tar sands to U.S. Gulf ports, and Obama’s efforts to cut emissions from power plants. Americans favor building the pipeline by nearly two-to-one (59% to 31%), although that margin has slipped somewhat since March 2013. Republicans are heavily in favor, while Democrats are more divided. When it comes to the Obama administration’s proposal to cut power plant emissions, the public favors stricter limits by a 64% to 31% margin. For more public opinion on these and other issues, see our energy and environment fact sheet.
8Deficit: The percentage of Americans who say that reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority for the president and Congress rose 19 points between 2009 and 2013, but has fallen eight points over the past two years, to 64%. Historically, the party holding the White House tends to place less importance on reducing the deficit compared with the party out of power. That remains the case today, with 72% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats rating deficit reduction as a top policy priority, although the number of Republicans holding this view is down 12 points since 2013.
9Obama: About as many Americans approve (47%) of Obama’s overall job performance as disapprove (48%), compared with the 55% who gave him positive marks shortly after his election in 2012. Nearly four-in-ten (38%) say Obama’s economic policies since taking office have made economic conditions better, while 28% say they have made the economy worse; 30% think they have not had much of an effect. In the international arena, there has been a sharp increase since 2012 in the share of Americans who say Obama’s approach to foreign policy and national security issues is “not tough enough.” More than half (55%) of Americans currently regard him as not tough enough, with 89% of Republicans holding that view compared with 35% of Democrats.
10Republicans: The Republican Party is seen favorably by 41% of Americans and unfavorably by 53%. (By comparison, the public is divided about the Democrats with 46% having positive views of the party and 48% having negative ones.) Overall, 49% of the public disapproves of Republican congressional leaders’ policies and plans for the future; slightly fewer (40%) approve.
Bruce Drake is a senior editor at Pew Research Center.