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State of the Union 2019: How Americans see major national issues

More than eight-in-ten men say men face pressure to be emotionally strong

Trump delivering his first State of the Union address in 2018. His second is set for Tuesday. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead/Getty Images)

Following a political standoff that briefly delayed his annual speech to the nation, President Donald Trump will deliver his second State of the Union address on Tuesday night. The speech comes amid a debate between Trump and congressional Democrats over border security – one that recently led to the longest federal government shutdown in history.

As Trump’s speech takes the spotlight, here’s a look at public opinion on important issues facing the country, drawn from Pew Research Center’s recent surveys.

Public's policy priorities for 2019

Border wall: A majority of Americans (58%) continue to oppose substantially expanding the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in January. While opinion on the wall was little changed from last year, partisan views were more divided than ever: Republican support for the wall was at a record high and Democratic support was at a new low.

A greater share of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (69%) said this year that expanding the wall would lead to a major reduction in illegal immigration than said so in 2017 (58%). Most Democrats and Democratic leaners, on the other hand, said a wall expansion would not have much impact on illegal immigration into the U.S.

Immigration: A majority of Americans (58%) said they were not too or not at all confident in Trump’s ability to make wise decisions about immigration policy, according to the same January survey. Still, around half of U.S. adults (51%) said immigration should be a top priority for Trump and Congress this year, though Republicans (68%) were much more likely than Democrats (40%) to say this. Similarly, in a survey conducted in November, most Republicans and Republican leaners (68%) said reducing illegal immigration into the U.S. should be a top foreign policy priority, while just two-in-ten Democrats and Democratic leaners said this. Republicans were also more likely to view reducing legal immigration into the U.S. as a priority (41% vs. 14%).

The U.S. public’s views of immigrants remain largely positive, with 62% saying immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents. But while most Democrats (83%) hold that view, just 38% of Republicans said the same. Around half of Republicans (49%) and just 11% of Democrats said immigrants burden the country by taking jobs, housing and health care.

Bipartisan cooperation: Most Americans said they’d like to see cooperation between Trump and Congress, the November 2018 survey found. Yet seven-in-ten Democrats said their party’s leaders should stand up to Trump on issues important to Democrats, even if less gets done in Washington, according to the January survey. Republicans were more divided: While around half (51%) said Trump should stand up to Democrats, 42% said he should work with Democrats to get things done, even if it disappoints supporters.

Americans are deeply pessimistic about chances that partisan cooperation will improve in the coming year: About seven-in-ten Americans (71%) said they think Republicans and Democrats in Washington will bicker and oppose one another more than usual this year. Just 21% said members of both parties will work together to solve problems more than usual. And just 35% of Americans were somewhat or very confident in Trump’s ability to work effectively with Congress.

Mueller investigation: A majority (55%) of Americans said in the January survey that they were confident that special counsel Robert Mueller is conducting a fair investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election, a share that has largely held steady over the past year. There is less public confidence in Trump on the issue: Just 37% were very or somewhat confident that Trump is handling matters related to the special counsel investigation appropriately. Views of the investigation and Trump’s handling of the matter remain deeply divided by party.

Public more confident in Trump on trade, economy than immigration and dealing with Congress

Tariffs and trade: Americans’ views of recent tariffs between the United States and some of its trading partners tilt more negative than positive, according to a survey conducted in summer 2018. About half of Americans (49%) said they think the increased tariffs would be bad for the U.S., while 40% said increased tariffs would be good for the country. As with many issues, views were deeply partisan, with most Republicans (73%) seeing tariffs as good for the country and most Democrats (77%) seeing it as bad for the nation.

More broadly, about half (51%) of Americans are at least somewhat confident in Trump’s ability to negotiate favorable trade agreements with other countries. Public views of Trump in this domain are more positive than in many other areas. (However, global trade ranks among the lowest concerns for the public’s policy priorities for 2019.)

The economy: Strengthening the economy continues to rank as a top issue for the public overall: 70% of Americans said this should be a top priority. Majorities in both parties – 79% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats – said the economy should be a top priority. But the prominence of this goal, as well as improving the job situation, has waned significantly in recent years.

Four-in-ten Americans said Trump’s economic policies have made economic conditions better since taking office, while 28% said they have made conditions worse. (Another 29% said his economic policies have not had much effect.) And about half of Americans (49%) said they are at least somewhat confident in Trump’s ability to make good decisions about economic policy. Jobs and economic growth was also the only one of 12 issues on which a larger share of the public said Trump had a better approach than congressional Democrats (44% to 33%), according to the November 2018 survey conducted after the midterms.

U.S. public split over withdrawing troops from Syria, doubt Trump has clear plan

Foreign policy: Defending the country against terrorism remains one of the public’s top policy priorities. A majority of Americans (67%) say terrorism should be a top priority this year, though this differs greatly by party. Looking at foreign conflicts, the U.S. public is divided over whether withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria is the right (43%) or wrong (45%) decision. Many Americans (65%) do not think Trump has a clear plan for dealing with the situation in Syria; this includes a majority of Republicans (56%) and an even larger majority of Democrats (91%).

Climate change: Climate change and the environment are among the most divisive issues in the January survey on policy priorities for the president and Congress. Democrats are 43 percentage points more likely than Republicans to say protecting the environment should be a top priority this year (74% vs. 31%) and 46 points more likely to cite global climate change as a top priority (67% vs. 21%). In the survey conducted last November, 55% of the public said Democrats in Congress would have a better approach to the environment while just 19% said Trump would have the better approach on the environment.

In a survey conducted last March and April, majorities of Americans said the federal government is doing too little to protect key aspects of the environment including water (69%), air quality (64%) and animals and their habitats (63%). And two-thirds of Americans (67%) said the government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.

Economy, health care and terrorism among top public priorities, as concerns over jobs and deficit fade

Health care: About seven-in-ten Americans (69%) said reducing health care costs should be a top priority for the president and Congress this year. This reflects an 8-percentage-point increase from 2011, though is little changed from last year. Majorities in both parties placed priority on health care, though a larger share of Democrats (77%) than Republicans (59%) cited health care costs as a top priority. In the post-midterm survey, Democrats in Congress had a 23-point advantage over Trump in the public’s assessments of who’d have the better approach to health care (51% vs. 28%).

Race relations: Addressing race relations in the country ranked lower on the public’s list of top priorities this year, with 46% saying it should be a top priority for Trump and Congress. This includes a majority of Democrats (57%) but only a third of Republicans.

In a survey conducted in September and October, ahead of the midterm elections, about seven-in-ten U.S. registered voters supporting Democratic candidates (71%) said the way racial and ethnic minorities are treated by the criminal justice system was a “very big” problem in the country. By contrast, just 10% of registered voters supporting Republican candidates said treatment of minorities by the justice system was a major problem. There was also a 44-point gap in views of whether racism is a very big problem: While 63% of Democratic voters said racism was a very big problem in the country, just 19% of Republican voters said the same.

Wide gender and partisan gaps in views on women in leadership

Gender issues: Deep partisan divides were also apparent when it came to opinions about whether sexism is a serious problem. In the fall 2018 survey, there was a 38-point gap between the shares of voters supporting Republican candidates (12%) and those supporting Democrats (50%) saying sexism was a very big problem in the country. This partisan divide was wider than the gender gap in views of whether sexism is a serious problem in the country. Among the public overall, 40% of women said sexism is a major problem, compared with about a quarter of men (26%).

A separate survey conducted in June and July last year found wide party gaps in views of gender and leadership. About eight-in-ten Democrats and Democratic leaners (79%) said there are too few women in high political offices, compared with 33% of Republicans and Republican leaners – a 46-point gap. The gender gap on this question was substantial, with 69% of women overall saying there are too few women in office compared with 48% of men. Among Republicans, gender gaps in views of women in leadership were particularly wide. By 20 percentage points, Republican women were more likely than their male counterparts to say there are too few women in high political offices in the U.S. today. And while most Republican women said it’s easier for men to get these positions, closer to half of GOP men said the same. (There are also party and gender divides in views of women in corporate leadership.)