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Katrina and Iraq

by Ruy Teixeira

Katrina definitely has had a role in deepening economic pessimism among the public. But it’s also had a role sharpening up public dissatisfaction with the situation in Iraq. A new Democracy Corps memo, based on focus groups with swing voters in Pennsylvania and Iowa, makes the following very interesting observations about the relationship between Iraq and Katrina:

The events surrounding Katrina highlighted two themes for voters. One of them – the realization that we have millions of Americans living in poverty, children without basic nutrition or medical care, elderly who face a monthly choice between food, heat, and medicine, and uninsured families one setback away from financial disaster – was present in conversations on Iraq before Katrina, but the suffering of Katrina’s victims and the long road ahead for the hundreds of thousands displaced by the storm really brought it into focus. Now, voters believe we must take care of those at home first, and if that means reducing funding or troop levels in Iraq, so be it. There is still little appetite for an immediate withdrawal, particularly among the men, but strong support across all groups to shift resources from saving the rest of the world to taking care of America’s increasingly urgent needs.

The second Iraq-related theme was really brought to light by Katrina and was not a part of most Americans’ beliefs before this tragedy. In the wake of the miserable performance of the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA, as well as state and local officials, they now see that America is not any safer or more prepared for a major disaster than it was before 9/11.

A number of recent public polls have vividly demonstrated this interest in shifting resources away from the Iraq conflict. In the September 7-8 Time/SRBI poll, 61 percent said they wanted to cut Iraq spending to pay for rebuilding the Gulf Coast, far more than expressed interest in any other payment option. In the September 9-12 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, when respondents were offered five options for financing the costs of post-Katrina rebuilding, reducing Iraq war spending (45 percent) was considerably more popular than the other options: repealing next year’s income tax cuts (27 percent); keeping the estate tax in place (15 percent), cutting federal spending in other areas like education (8 percent) and raising income taxes (7 percent). In the September 16-18 Ipsos-AP poll, 42 percent said that cutting spending on Iraq was the best way to pay for the Katrina relief effort, compared to 29 percent who wanted to delay or cancel additional tax cuts, 14 percent who wanted to add to the federal debt and gradually pay it back and 11 percent who wanted to cut spending for other domestic programs like education and health care. And finally, in the September 16-18 Gallup poll, when offered four options for paying for Katrina-related problems, 54 percent chose cutting spending for the war in Iraq, compared to 17 who chose raising taxes, 15 percent who chose increasing the federal budget deficit and 6 percent who chose cutting spending on domestic programs.

Those are the public’s priorities. We’ll see how much, if at all, they match up with what the current administration does.