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NBC/WSJ Poll: Terror Fears Reshape 2016 Landscape

President Barack Obama’s job rating is at just 43 percent — its lowest level in more than a year.
Imgae: A police officer deploys tape
A police officer deploys tape to an area near where authorities stopped a vehicle in San Bernardino, Calif., Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. Damian Dovarganes / AP

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., have vaulted terrorism and national security to become the American public’s top concern, and they’ve helped drive President Barack Obama’s job rating to 43 percent — its lowest level in more than a year, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

What’s more, seven-in-10 Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction — the highest percentage here since Aug. 2014.

And 71 percent say the shootings and random acts of violence that have taken place this year -- from Charleston, S.C., Oregon and Colorado, to the terrorist shootings in San Bernardino, Calif. -- are now are now a permanent part of American life.

“For most of 2015, the country’s mood, and thus the presidential election, was defined by anger and the unevenness of the economic recovery,” says Democratic pollster Fred Yang of Hart Research Associates, which conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies. “Now that has abruptly changed to fear.”

That kind focus on security and terrorism “is a very different campaign than the one we thought we’d be running,” McInturff adds, referring to the 2016 presidential race.

But Democratic pollster Peter Hart cautions that this focus could be temporary, especially if there isn’t another terrorist attack. “Let’s wait and see the half-life of this after the next three months.”

In the poll, 40 percent of Americans say that national security and terrorism is the top priority for the federal government -- up 19 points from when this question was last asked in April.

That’s compared with the 23 percent who think job creation and economic growth are the top issue -- down six points from when they had been the No. 1 concern last spring.

This finding is consistent with a recent Gallup poll, which showed terrorism as the public’s most important U.S. problem.

Yet there’s a significant partisan divide in the NBC/WSJ survey: 58 percent of Republican primary voters say national security/terrorism is their top concern, versus just 26 percent of Democratic primary voters who say that.

And 33 percent of Democrats say their top issue was the economy/jobs, versus just 12 percent of Republicans.

When asked which one or two news events defined 2015, the top answer was the terrorist attacks in Paris (at 29 percent). That was followed by the terrorist shootings in San Bernardino (at 23 percent), the mass shooting in Charleston (22 percent), the Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage across the country (19 percent) and the debates over the use of force by police (16 percent).

Obama’s job-approval rating drops to its lowest point in a year

This focus on national security and terrorism comes as the NBC/WSJ poll finds President Obama’s job-approval rating at 43 percent, which is down two points from late October.

Indeed, it is Obama’s lowest overall standing since right before the 2014 midterm elections.

Just 37 percent approve of the president’s handling of foreign policy, and only 34 percent approve of his handling of the terrorist militants known as ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

(By contrast, the overall approval rating for George W. Bush at this same point in time was 34 percent in the NBC/WSJ poll, and just 32 percent of his foreign-policy handling.)

In addition, only 20 percent of the public believes the country is headed in the right direction, versus a whopping 70 percent who think it’s on the wrong track.

And 73 percent say they want the next president to take a different approach from President Obama’s. “This will become a high hurdle for the Democrats at some stage of the 2016 election,” says Yang, the Democratic pollster.

Political pendulum swings back to security over privacy

The NBC/WSJ poll also finds 60 percent of the country thinking that military action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is in the nation’s interest -- essentially unchanging from past polling on the subject.

Forty-two percent say this military action should include both airstrikes and combat troops; 36 percent say it should be limited only to airstrikes; and 12 percent say military action shouldn’t be taken.

And when it comes to the security-vs.-privacy debate, the NBC/WSJ poll shows that the political pendulum has swung back to the side of security.

Fifty-five percent say they’re more worried that the United States won’t go far enough in monitoring the activities and communications of potential terrorists, versus 40 percent who are more worried the government will go too far

That’s a reversal from July 2013 – after Edward Snowden’s revelations – when 56 percent said they were more concerned that the government would go too far in its surveillance.

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Dec. 6-9 of 1,000 adults (including nearly 400 reached by cell phone), and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.