Tonight, President Obama will address a divided Congress in his fourth State of the Union speech, tackling a wide range of contentious issues. Florida Senator Marco Rubio will deliver the Republican response to the speech in English and Spanish, highlighting the GOP’s new effort to appeal to Hispanic Americans through bipartisan immigration reform, but the country remains divided on many of the issues on Obama’s agenda. Public opinion data shows deep rifts by age, political affiliation, and religious affiliation on the issues that Obama is likely to specifically address, including climate change, the federal budget, gun control, and gay and lesbian issues. Here’s a rundown on the divisions, and the occasional common ground, on the major topics:
1. Immigration reform.
Overall, when given the choice between a comprehensive approach to immigration reform that couples enforcement with a path to citizenship, and a deportation-only approach, Americans prefer the comprehensive approach over the enforcement-only approach by a large margin (62 percent vs. 36 percent).
However, Republicans are nearly evenly divided, with half (50 percent) favoring the comprehensive approach and almost half (48 percent) favoring the deportation-only approach. Meanwhile, a solid majority (57 percent) of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party favor the deportation-only approach, while only approximately 4-in-10 (41 percent) support comprehensive reform. In fact, the 40-point gap between Tea Party identifiers and Hispanic Americans is one of the largest on this issue: more than 8-in-10 (81 percent) Hispanic Americans favor comprehensive reform. These divisions do not bode well for bipartisan immigration reform efforts, and highlight the role that Senator Rubio – a Tea Party darling who has also been one of the Republican Party’s most vocal advocates for immigration reform – must play in the upcoming negotiations.
2. Climate change.
Climate change is another issue that is likely to make its way onto Obama’s State of the Union program, as it did in his recent inaugural address, although it’s probable that his actions will not rely on Congress’ approval. More than 6-in-10 (63 percent) Americans say the severity of recent natural disasters is evidence of global climate change, while one-third (33 percent) disagree, showing that many Americans believe the underlying science. But there are nearly 30-point partisan divides. Seven-in-ten (70 percent) Democrats and 65 percent of independents agree that the severity of recent natural disasters is evidence of global climate change, while among Republicans, only 43 percent agree, and a majority (55 percent) disagree. These findings clearly show why Obama will most likely use his executive power to curb emissions from existing power plants, rather than trying to pass environmental legislation through the Republican-controlled House.
3. Gun Control.
Last December’s tragic shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, launched gun control legislation to the front of Obama’s agenda. And although support for stricter gun control laws has jumped eight points since last summer (52 percent in August 2012 vs. 60 percent today), the underlying data indicates that this is largely a result of Democrats’ heightened resolve, rather than a change of heart among Republicans. Between August and January, Democrats’ support for stricter gun control laws increased by 13 points (72 percent in August 2012 vs. 85 percent today), while levels of support among Republicans (30 percent) and independents (54 percent) remained essentially unchanged.
4. The Budget.
Meanwhile, budget issues will, inevitably, make an appearance in the State of the Union address, which is happening just days after Obama called for a short-term solution to the “sequester,” a package of across-the-board cuts to the federal budget that will take effect if Congress does not take action by March 1st. This is one place where Americans are not as divided, at least in principle: late last year, as Congress struggled to find a solution to the impending “fiscal cliff,” more than 7-in-10 (72 percent) voters say we should employ a combined approach of cutting major programs and raising taxes.
5. Rights for Gay and Lesbian Americans
Finally, LGBT issues – in particular, same-sex marriage – may also find their way into Obama’s address. Last May, Obama first declared his support for allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, an issue on which Americans are nearly evenly divided (49 percent favor, 45 percent opposed). These overall divisions, however, mask a large generational rift: while nearly 7-in-10 (68 percent) Millennials (age 18-29) favor same-sex marriage, only 37 percent of seniors (age 65 and older) agree. The religious landscape has also shifted over the last few years, with major religious groups now on both sides of this debate. Majorities of religiously unaffiliated Americans (74 percent), non-Christian religious Americans such as Jews, Buddhists, or Muslims (70 percent), white mainline Protestants (56 percent), and Catholics (54 percent) favor allowing gay and lesbian people to marry legally, while majorities of black Protestants (58 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (73 percent) are opposed.
Later this year, the Supreme Court will rule on two important cases: the legality of Proposition 8, a California ballot measure which amended the state’s constitution to delegitimize the state Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of gay marriage, and the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which the Obama administration ceased to defend in 2011.
These divisions mark an ongoing battle on many of these issues. The question is whether, after this State of the Union, the president will be able to marshal public opinion behind him to bring his agenda to fruition, or whether he will be thwarted by a divided Congress and country.