WASHINGTON ― As progressives work to cut President Joe Biden’s flat defense budget request for 2022 ― and Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., push to increase it ― public views are not expected to provide much momentum to either side.
Biden’s pullout from the 20-year-old war in Afghanistan isn’t seen as an animating issue either, according to a Gallup poll released Friday.
Though 35 percent of people surveyed said U.S. national defense isn’t strong enough (up from 25 percent a year ago), 50 percent said the country’s defense is “just right,” according to the poll. By contrast, 14 percent said America’s national defense is stronger than it needs to be.
Asked specifically about defense spending, 42 percent saw current levels as “about right,” with a slim 26-30 split between “too little” and “too much.” Last year, 50 percent said spending was “about right,” with 17 percent saying “too little” and 30 percent saying “too much.”
“We are in a period of relative public quiescence on the military spending front. Americans’ views of military spending and the state of the country’s defense are about average for what we have measured in past decades,” Gallup senior scientist Frank Newport said in an analysis last week. “There is neither an unusually strong feeling on the part of the average American that the military must be strengthened, nor that defense spending should be cut back.”
Newport pointed to a Gallup update in January that showed 74 percent of Americans are very or somewhat satisfied with the nation’s military strength and preparedness, putting the issue sixth in a list of 21 issues tested.
Biden’s announcement that the U.S. would begin a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in May also aligns with public opinion (where there is any), and it’s unlikely to see pushback. Newport said withdrawing all U.S. troops was the most frequently chosen response, at 32 percent, followed by another 29 percent who wanted troop levels decreased, according to an AP-NORC poll last September.
“I do not see strong evidence that this decision is going to produce significant pushback from the American public,” Newport said, adding that not only do more than 6 in 10 Americans appear to be OK with a decrease or total withdrawal, but most Americans polled said they don’t follow any news of the conflict.
While mostly Republicans have criticized the move as a risk that Afghanistan will once again becoming a launch pad for terrorist attacks, 58 percent of voters approve of the job Biden is doing fighting terrorism. That’s according to a Hill-HarrisX poll conducted just days after Biden’s announcement.
Earlier this month, Biden’s request for $753 billion in national security funding, an increase of 1.6 percent, saw criticism from across the ideological spectrum. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., has ripped that amount as a wasteful amount coming in at 3.6 times larger than China’s defense budget. A group of Senate Republicans led by McConnell argued it was not enough to compete with Beijing.
“U.S. military power enhances all our other tools and represents the best deterrent against near-term threats posed by [China’s] People’s Liberation Army,” McConnell wrote with Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and others. “It is not tough talk alone that will get Beijing’s attention, but American defense spending and combat-credible American forces in theater.”
The China focus does dovetail with public opinion. In March, 45 percent of Americans polled by Gallup said China is the greatest enemy of the U.S., more than double the percentage who said so in 2020. China last ranked No. 1 in 2014, while Russia topped the list in 2020, 2019 and 2014.
Responses on defense spending questions sometimes skew more strongly in one direction. Just after President Ronald Reagan took office, 51 percent of the public felt there was too little spent on national defense and the military (an all time high) before sentiment changed in his second term and carried over to the first years of the George H.W. Bush administration.
Sentiment that national defense is “about right” is usually the most prevalent, and while it has trended upward every year since 2016, it fell this year from a high of 62 percent. The answer “stronger than it needs to be” tends to poll in the low double digits without fluctuating much from year to year.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.