Free trade is not a topic discussed at length in the media, and when it is discussed it is not usually about the positives. The subject comes up now as Congress debates granting President Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). (The specifics of those deals is beyond the scope of this posting, but for thorough summaries of each see here and here. Note: both links point to PDFs.)
The ongoing tussle has caught the media’s attention because it has allied Congressional Republicans with President Obama as the president faces a revolt within his own party. All groups involved likely think they are acting in the interests of their electoral bases—or at least in the interest of their financial supporters—but who is more closely aligned with the public? That depends on which poll you cite and how you interpret the results.
The most recent (April 26-30) NBS News/Wall Street Journal survey shows that 37 percent think that free trade has helped the United States. While that is a plurality of respondents, nearly as many (31%) thought it hurt the US and 25 percent said it made little difference. That is not a clear consensus.
That same poll returned mixed results on NAFTA. Though 29% thought the impact was positive, 26 percent thought it was negative, and 32 percent said it had little impact.
A recently released survey of elite and public opinion by the Chicago Council also offers mixed results on trade. While two-thirds of the public says globalization is mostly good, just 14 percent of the overall public unconditionally favor lowering trade barriers. That number was 37 percent among Republican leaders and only 5 percent among Democratic leaders.
Instead, support among the public (50%) for lowering of trade barriers is based on the government establishing programs to help those that lose their jobs due to free trade. This is not robust support for free trade, suggesting opposition could rise should those programs be insufficient. Speaking of opposition, it should be noted that nearly one-third (31%) of the public opposed lowering trade barriers altogether.
Also of importance is that the questionnaire used the term “trade barriers” rather than free trade—a charged term. This leaves the possibility that responses may have differed significantly had the latter term been used.
A Gallup poll from earlier this year finds that 58 percent cited global trade as an opportunity versus 33% that cited it as a threat. But the same was not true in previous years. Positive attitudes on trade have ebbed and flowed. From 2005 to 2012, a plurality either cited that “foreign trade” was a threat or attitudes were evenly split.
Finally, a CBS News/New York Times poll from April 2009 found that 66 percent cited trade with other countries as good. But 60 percent of all respondents also noted that restrictions on that trade were necessary.
So what does this mean for TPP? In the previously cited Chicago Council survey, six-in-ten members of the public support the initiative. Combined with the other results, there does seem to be some level of goodwill toward free trade. But there is also enough data to call into question exactly how free that trade should be.
This is precisely what makes it such a contentious issue on Capitol Hill. Both sides have the polling and both sides think they are acting in the interest of the public. With nearly one-half of the public stating free trade is an issue they do not think much about, there is a lot of space for political maneuvering. Being aligned with the public on this issue can be as easy as grabbing the nearest—or at least the most convenient—survey results.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy.
The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion.
The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.
The United Kingdom remains split on Brexit as Parliament is suspended amid tumultuous backlash.
How are Americans reacting to the US-China trade war?
Mexicans have a far more negative views of Trump than of the United States or the US-Mexico relationship.
Amid the protests and violence in Hong Kong, a recent survey reveals differences in opinions between younger and older age groups as well as between more and less educated people living in Hong Kong.
Mexican attitudes towards Central American migrants are changing as the dispute between the US and Mexico over how to handle the migration issue continues.
Relations between Japan and South Korea are in freefall, with the two key US allies in Asia engaged in a steadily escalating economic conflict.
The United States has long been the tops arms supplier in the world. Yet public opinion data shows that Americans aren’t fans of U.S. arms sales.
Most Americans believe that respect and admiration for the United States are instrumental in achieving US foreign policy goals. But a new poll finds publics in the Middle East and North Africa continue to view the United States unfavorably.
At the June 25-26 Bahrain Peace to Prosperity Workshop, Jared Kushner presented the first component of a U.S. peace plan for the Middle East. But how does this plan sit with the Palestinian public?
Approval rates for Moon Jae-in are sliding, but his North Korea policy is not one of primary drivers.
In early February 2019, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty following President Trump’s October 2018 (and the Obama administration’s July 2014) accusations that Russia was failing to comply with the treaty. Russia withdrew from the treaty the next day.
Findings from a February 2019 Chicago Council on Global Affairs general public survey and a December 2018 Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) survey of International Relations (IR) scholars around the world illustrate how these different populations perceive the collapse of the INF Treaty.
The foreign policy elite and the general public have long viewed the potential threat of China very differently. That gap may may now be in decline.
Despite expectations for the meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, their recent summit in Hanoi ended with no agreement toward denuclearization. With that in mind, we asked our panel of foreign policy experts whether the United States should continue to focus primarily on denuclearization, or shift to arms control and non-proliferation.
The Council’s Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy is launching a series of flash polls to share expert insights on policy debates driving today's news.
At a Middle East conference this month in Warsaw, Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and Mideast adviser, said that the administration will unveil its much-vaunted Middle East peace plan after the April 9 Israeli elections.