In Terrorism Fight, Wariness Tempers Optimism

By Jennifer Agiesta and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 10, 2007

Six years after the Sept. 11 attacks, public opinion on terrorism is delicately balanced between confidence and caution.

Sixty percent of respondents in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll say the country is safer now than it was before Sept. 11, and about half are confident that the U.S. government can prevent further terrorist attacks in this country. More than half say that overall, the campaign against terrorism is going well.

But these positive assessments are weakly held and for most do not assuage their concerns about future attacks in the United States. Just one-quarter say the nation is "much" safer than it was six years ago, 15 percent express a "great deal" of confidence in the government's ability to prevent attacks, and 8 percent say the fight against terrorism is going "very" well. By contrast, two-thirds worry "a great deal" or "somewhat" about major terrorist attacks.

Partisan divisions prevail in assessing progress in battling terrorism. While 83 percent of Republicans say the U.S. campaign against terrorism is going well, only 37 percent of Democrats agree.

President Bush fares better on his handling of the campaign against terrorism than on the war in Iraq, but slightly more disapprove of his performance than approve: 51 percent rate Bush's job performance negatively, while 46 percent give him positive marks.

Further, ambivalence about which party can do a better job on the issue has grown. Democrats' recent advantages over Bush on handling terrorism fizzle when they are matched against the Republicans overall. Four in 10 trust Democrats on the issue while about the same number prefer Republicans and nearly one in five say they trust neither party.

Independents, who have preferred Democrats on the question for the past year, are now divided, and a quarter of independents do not trust either party to handle the issue. Other traditionally Democratic-leaning constituencies also show signs of frustration. More than two in 10 liberals, residents of the Northeast and West, racial minorities and those with postgraduate educations trust neither party on terrorism.

Terrorism and national security are dwarfed by the Iraq war as issues for the 2008 presidential campaign. Just 6 percent rate it their top issue compared with 35 percent who say Iraq will be key in determining their ballot. The issue is more prominent in the race for the GOP nomination: While 12 percent of Republicans cite terrorism as the most important campaign issue, it is tops for 3 percent of Democrats.

The poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 4 to 7 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

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