By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is Director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center. Additional details about public opinion on these and other issues can be found at Pewresearch.org. The views expressed are his own.
Now that the election is over, the hard work begins. The U.S. economy is careening toward a so-called fiscal cliff that could dramatically shrink output in 2013. Confrontations loom with Iran over its nuclear weapons program and China over its trade practices.
Yet while the American people have chosen Barack Obama to navigate these shoals over the next four years, they remain deeply divided over what to do about these challenges. Obama has a mandate to govern, but his mandate on specific issues is far from clear. His biggest challenge may be to bridge the divides among the American people.
The economy was issue number one for voters on election day: 59 percent named the economy as their top concern, 15 percent said the government deficit, according to election day exit polls released by AP. The results echo a CNN exit poll that suggested 60 percent of voters see the economy as their top concern, with 38 percent saying that unemployment was their top economic worry.
Unless a comprehensive deficit reduction plan is agreed upon by January 1, 2013, dramatic cuts to U.S. defense and social welfare spending and significant tax hikes will kick in.
The non-partisan U.S. Congressional Budget Office estimates that implementing such measures would shrink the American economy by 0.5 percent in 2013. Such a course would ripple through a global economy already hobbled by recession in Europe and a slowdown in China, India and Japan.
But doing nothing would mean that the U.S. government deficit would remain above $1 trillion for a fifth consecutive year, risking a spike in interest rates that could slow American growth anyway. And continuing to fund a rising U.S. debt would drain much-needed capital from other economies.
So Obama will be intensely involved in negotiations with Congressional leaders about the “fiscal cliff” even before he is sworn in January 20, 2013. In his victory speech after winning reelection, he acknowledged such: “in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together [such as] reducing our deficit.”
But he faces a serious conundrum. Republicans, who in the past have opposed any proposals to increase taxes as part of a package of measures to deal with the deficit, remain in control of the U.S. House of Representatives. And, while in the minority in the Senate, Republicans have sufficient votes to block legislation.
Moreover, the American public is divided.
They support a combination of budget cuts and tax increases, especially for the wealthy. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Americans approve of raising taxes on incomes of more than $250,000, according to an October 2012 Pew Research Center survey.
At the same time, 56 percent oppose reductions in military defense spending. And there is strong public resistance to major tinkering with government-funded entitlement programs – such as Social Security or Medicare– in order to reduce the deficit. Fully 51 percent of Americans say that maintaining such benefits as they are trumps deficit reduction.
Iran is the most portentous foreign policy challenge facing the next administration. Obama promised that Tehran would not acquire nuclear weapons on his watch, reflecting the sentiment of the American people. A majority of Americans (56 percent) want the new president to take a firm stand against Iran’s nuclear program, even at the cost of a military conflict, according to a Pew Research Center survey in October.
But less than half of Democrats and young people agree, signaling potential division among Obama’s own constituency if there is a confrontation between Washington and Tehran.
Moreover, Americans’ support for the use of military force against Iran exceeds that in any other country, according to a spring 2012 Pew Global Attitudes survey, complicating the new president’s ability to build and hold together a united diplomatic front in any effort to deny Iran a nuclear arsenal.
Ongoing turmoil in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring suggests that dealing with terrorism will remain one of Obama’s priorities. The U.S.-led efforts to fight terrorism enjoy overwhelming public backing (76 percent) in the United States. More specifically, drone strikes, which are likely to continue to be one of the principle methods of prosecuting this war, are widely supported. But while 62 percent of Americans back drone strikes, including 74 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of Democrats, people in most other nations take a sharply negative view, portending difficulties if the Obama administration continues to vigorously pursue such a policy.
If Iran is the next president’s most immediate security challenge, China is his long-term economic problem. In the campaign, Obama said he would be tougher with Beijing on economic issues. Now that he has been re-elected, such tough talk will be put to the test.
President Obama will have public support for a more confrontational approach. In an October 2012 survey, the Pew Research Center found that by 49 percent to 42 percent, Americans said that it was more important to be tough in dealing with China on economic issues than it was to build a strong relationship. And backing for this more hard-nosed approach had increased nine percentage points since March 2011.
But the public is divided along partisan lines in how best to deal with Beijing: while 65 percent of Republicans want the president to get tougher, only 39 percent of president Obama’s own Democrats agree.
American elections are consequential events, not just for the United States, but for the world. And the reelection of Barack Obama is likely to bring to a head a number of long-smoldering economic and strategic concerns that affect people everywhere, not just those who got to vote November 6.
Obama now has a mandate to govern. But his mandate domestically, and internationally, on specific issues is far from clear.