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Do Americans Trust Obama on Terrorism or Just Dismiss the Terrorist Threat?

Barack Obama has strong overall approval, and even strong approval on the subject of terrorism. But a result from the latest AP/GfK poll–one understandably drowned out by the poll’s questions about Sonia Sotomayor–that really struck me was that from three consecutive questions (TER1, TER2, TER3 on pp. 5 & 6) about how Americans perceive the threat of another terrorist attack and Obama’s ability to handle terrorism.

Two back-to-back questions, TER1 and TER2, asked respondents, first, if they are worried about “becoming a victim of terrorism,” and second, if they are concerned that they or their family “might be a victim of a terrorist attack.” The questions are so similar, in fact, they elicited virtually identical results: 35 percent combined responded either “frequently” or “occasionally” to the first one, and “great deal” or “somewhat” to the second; a combined 65 percent responded “rarely” or “never” to the first and either “not too much” or “not at all” to the second. Given the similarity of the questions, I’ll go out on a limb here and assume it’s the same 35/65 groups in both cases. (Two emails and two phone calls to AP/GfK to request crosstabs were not returned.)

And then there is Question TER3:

And when it comes to terrorism, how confident are you that President Barack Obama will be able to handle this issue effectively? Very confident, somewhat confident, not too confident, or not at all confident?

On this question, 70 percent of people responded either “very” or “somewhat” with 29 percent (allow me to round to 30%, to keep the numbers simple) responding “not too” or “not at all.” Notice how close the split is to the split in the previous two questions; that is, about two-thirds of the country isn’t much worried about themselves or their family being attacked by terrorists, and an almost identical share (a wee bit higher) are confident about Obama’s ability to handle terrorism.

Again, without the crosstabs, I can’t know for sure how strongly that 65% and that 70% overlap, but let’s consider the situation in the two limits:

Case 1:

Case 2:

In the first table, above, I presume that all of those 65% respondents who aren’t much worried about an attack are also confident in Obama’s abilities on the issue of terrorism. That means that, at minimum, the difference, just 5%–one in 1 in 20 Americans–and a mere one in every 14 Americans who are confident in Obama’s ability, are confident in his terrorism abilities despite having serious worries about a forthcoming attack.

At the other extreme — which I suspect is the far, far less likely actual crosstabulated case — I presume that the share of those confident in Obama’s ability includes all of the 35% worried about a pending attack. Yet that would still mean that, at the very most, only 35% of Americans are both confident in Obama’s ability and truly worried about a pending attack, and that only half (35% of 70%) of those confident in him are really worried that there will be an attack anyway.

Put simply, and presuming that my assumptions about the crosstabs are right, those who are confident in Obama aren’t much worried about an attack anyway, somewhat mooting their support, while those who worried about an attack are also doubtful that Obama would be up to the task.

Now, there’s (at least) two ways to look at this, and in some ways they ratify the polarities in post-9/11 conceptions about terror. As we hear repeatedly from conservatives, liberals are soft on security, underestimate the global threat of Islamic fundamentalists, etc. Yet it’s also hard not to conclude from these poll results on questions TER1 and TER2 that the rest of the country, which presumably includes most liberals and moderates, have come to the conclusion that September 11 may have been a one-time situation where the terrorists caught us off-guard and disorganized, but that their abilities to do so again are limited.

And that raises the question of whether that two-thirds is confident in Obama’s ability per se, or just confident because they are not much worried his abilities will be tested in the first place.

The reason I raise this question is simple: If, today, you were forced to describe one, event-based scenario that would put Obama in serious jeopardy for 2012 re-election, it would be a terrorist attack that either (a) he should have been able to anticipate and prevent; (b) he couldn’t have anticipated, but to which he responded poorly or too slowly; or, worse (c) both of the above. That said, the third of the country that seems both worried about another attack and, depending on the likely overlap, shows little faith in Obama’s ability to respond to such an attack is going to be remembered as either (1) a really, really paranoid group that’s basically dubious about any liberal’s/Democrat’s ability to handle national security issues anyway, or (2) a group clucking loudly if an attack occurs on Obama’s watch, and certainly if Obama bungles the response.

#TER3, unfortunately, only asks about Obama’s handling of terrorism as an issue, not of his potential response to an actual attack, which are not the same thing. It would be nice if AP/GfK followed this survey next time with a more specific question about the response to an actual attack. I should also note that whether a person believes he/she or his/her family will specifically be attacked is not the same as believing there will be an attack somewhere on Americans. But then again, given the share of the population that was actually, directly hit by the 9/11 attacks, even 35% would be absurdly high: even if we take the upper limits of deaths and casualties and those hit collaterally, the share of Americans literally and directly “attacked” on 9/11 is a fraction of one percent.