U.S. Attitudes and the Current Crisis

James Zogby’s Column

One month after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, President George Bush retains the strong support of a significant percentage of American voters. Eighty percent approve of his overall job performance, 89% give a positive rating to the President’s response to the attacks, and 74% say that they have confidence in Bush’s ability to handle the continuing crisis.

These are but some of the findings in a daily tracking poll of US voters conducted by Zogby International (ZI) of New York. Tracking polls measure opinion on a daily basis over a long period of time in order to determine changes in overall public attitudes. ZI began its recent tracking a week after the September 11 attacks. (To follow the daily ZI tracking polls, log on to http://www.zogby.com).

Bush’s numbers were not always this high and patriotic fervor alone can’t explain the sudden surge in the public’s support for his presidency.

Before the attacks, his job performance approval ratings were around 60%. What is significant is not that the President’s rating went up after September 11, but that he has maintained a strong approval rating by carefully calibrating his response and orchestrating his daily actions. His emotional visits to the attack sites in New York and Washington, his strong encouragement to the business community and to ordinary Americans to get back to work, his appearance at the Islamic Center and his well-received address before Congress have all contributed to leading the nation from shock and mourning toward a confident and focused approach to resolving this crisis.

Evidence of this can be found in the Zogby poll. Over three-quarters of those polled believe that the US will find the perpetrators and over 60% support an all-out war against countries that harbor or aid the terrorists, even if such a campaign “involved substantial American casualties”.

But even with this resolve, there are uncertainties as well. When asked whether they believe the “US will root out and destroy terrorism”, only 43% agree. Forty-seven percent are not confident that this can be done. Many Americans also believe that terror may strike yet again. And opinion is evenly split on whether or not this crisis will damage the US economy (48% are afraid that it will, while 49% say it will not).

One area that shows a dramatic turnabout is public confidence with regard to the security of the air transportation system. Shortly after the attacks, only 49% expressed confidence in air travel and 37% said that they were afraid to fly. Today, 66% say that they are confident in the security of air transport and the percentage of those who say that they are afraid to fly has dropped to 24%.

Efforts by the President, public officials and Arab American organizations have also borne fruit in creating an improved public attitude toward Arab Americans. By near identical margins of 6 to 1, US opinion has a favorable attitude toward Arab Americans and American Muslims. Attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims overseas, while still positive, are somewhat lower. Overall, 50% of Americans have a favorable attitude toward Arabs, while 26% have an unfavorable attitude. Muslims fare a bit better with a 51-20 favorability ratio.

These numbers, however, are still impressive and are substantially higher than US attitudes towards Arabs recorded over a decade ago. Work, however, remains to be done to improve the US public’s attitude toward the Arab world.

Further evidence of US support for Arab Americans and American Muslims can also be found in the fact that Americans appear to be very concerned by reports of hate crimes and other forms of backlash against both communities. Eighty-three percent, for example, say that they are “concerned about the treatment of Arab Americans during this crisis”; eighty-four percent say they are similarly “concerned about the treatment of Muslim Americans”. But even with this support and concern, a significant 38% “favor a policy that singles out Arab Americans for special security at airports check-ins”. To be fair, a majority of 56% opposed such a discriminatory practice that targets Arab Americans, but the 38% who support such a policy is a concern.

One area where the President’s efforts have clearly borne fruit is in his determination to define the struggle as a war against a small group of terrorists who may be Muslim, and not as a war against Islam. Eighty-six percent agree that the US not engage a war against Islam. But what the Zogby polls show, as well, is that Americans still do not have a completely informed view the religion of Islam. A majority, 54%, disagree that Islam encourages fanaticism, while 28% believe that it does. A large 16% say that they are not sure. This means that 44% of the public has either a distorted view of Islam or is unsure about the nature of the religion, indicating an area where significant work needs to be done.

Another area where the Administration’s efforts appear to be receiving public support is in its approach to coalition-building. After hesitating to become overly involved in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the Bush Administration appears to be making some steps towards engagement in an effort to shore up its coalition-building work in the Middle East. Despite the continued violence and the apparent resistance of the Israelis to support this US initiative, public opinion supports the proposition that “a US commitment to settle the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would help the President’s efforts in the war against terrorism” by a 56 to 28 percent margin. Should the President decide to make a major push in this area, these numbers would improve (since 16% are in the uncertain category), giving Bush a strong hand in any diplomatic effort.

Not unlike his father a decade ago, President Bush has won strong support from US voters. He can lead and continue to shape opinion as he conducts his campaign. Thus far he has taken the right tack. He is setting a positive tone in an effort to define the struggle and has sent strong signals of support toward Arab Americans and American Muslims and the Arab and Muslim worlds in general.

Arab leaders and opinion makers should know this and should continue to direct their efforts, as recent Arab visitors to Washington have done, toward encouraging this positive and mutually supportive effort of strengthening the US-Arab relationships in the context of confronting the terrorists who attacked the United States

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.