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2021 Chicago Council Survey

RESEARCH Public Opinion Survey by Dina Smeltz, Ivo H. Daalder, Karl Friedhoff, Craig Kafura, and Emily Sullivan
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While the Biden administration seems to understand where Americans stand on China and domestic renewal to support global competitiveness, the data disproves their assumptions that Americans are skeptical about trade and weary of US global engagement and leadership.

A Foreign Policy for the Middle Class—What Americans Think

Americans support US global engagement and leadership

The 2021 Chicago Council Survey focuses on the Biden administration's "Foreign Policy for the Middle Class" and how it aligns—or diverges—from the US public's policy preferences. Conducted about six months after President Biden’s inauguration, the 2021 survey reveals that the idea of a Foreign Policy for the Middle Class has some resonance with everyday Americans.  

Emphasis on Domestic Renewal

A key feature of the  Foreign Policy for the Middle Class is the link between domestic investments and international influence. The factors seen by most Americans as very important for maintaining US international influence are domestically focused.  

Majorities of Americans consider improving public education (73%), strengthening democracy at home (70%), and reducing both racial (53%) and economic (50%) inequality as very important to maintaining America’s global influence. Similarly, Americans are more concerned about threats within the United States (81%) than threats outside the country (19%).  

Bar graph showing opinion of factors contributing to the US remaining influential

China

The Biden administration has presented its policies as part of a strategy to face the challenges to US prosperity, security, and democratic values “by our most serious competitor, China.” American concern about competition from China is broad:  for the first time in Council polling, less than half of Americans (46%) say the United States is stronger than China in terms of military power. A plurality of Americans (40%) say China is economically stronger than the United States. In a dramatic shift from 2019, a majority of Americans now say that trade between the two nations does more to weaken US national security (58%, up from 33% in 2019).

58% of Americans say that trade between the US and China does more to weaken US national security

This represents a majority of respondents, a dramatic shift from 19 percent in 2019. 

However, there are policy areas in which the administration’s assumptions about the public do not bear out. 

Trade

Administration officials have conceded that some of the benefits of globalization and international trade have not been shared by all Americans, and that this may have caused some Americans to become disillusioned with the concepts. Yet the 2021 Chicago Council Survey shows that a record number of Americans (68%) now say globalization is mostly good for the United States, and three-quarters or more consider international trade to be beneficial to consumers like them, their own standard of living, US tech companies, the US economy, and US agriculture. 

68% of Americans say globalization is mostly good for the United States

A record number for Chicago Council Survey polling.

Leadership

While the Foreign Policy for the Middle Class calls for a formidable US return to the global stage, some US officials seem to think the US public is skeptical of international engagement. But 64 percent of Americans say they want the United States to take a leading role in addressing many of the world’s most pressing challenges, including climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite supporting the US withdrawal from Afghanistan at the time of polling, Americans also favor maintaining the existing US military presence around the world. They are as likely—or even more likely—to support the use of US troops to defend allies like Taiwan and Ukraine around the world.  

64% of Americans say they want the United States to take a leading role

 in addressing many of the world’s most pressing challenges, including climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Crown Center Content This content is produced by the Lester Crown Center, which aims to shape debates and inform decisions on important US foreign policy and national security issues.

About the 2021 Chicago Council Survey

The Chicago Council Survey, conducted every four years since 1974, biennially since 2002, and now annually, is a trusted and widely cited source of longitudinal data on American public opinion about a broad range of US foreign policy and international issues.

The 2021 Chicago Council Survey is made possible by the generous support of the Crown family and the Korea Foundation.

Defining the Middle Class

For this report, we opted to interpret the administration’s use of the term to discuss the views of Americans overall. The vast majority of Americans identifies as some variant of the middle class. When asked what socioeconomic class they belong in, half of Americans  (48%) self-identify as belonging to the middle class; another quarter (25%) say they are in the lower-middle class, and 18 percent say they are upper-middle class. Relatively few Americans identify outright as a member of the lower class (8%) or upper class (2%).

Methodology

The 2021 Chicago Council Survey, a project of the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy, is the latest effort in a series of wide-ranging surveys on American attitudes toward US foreign policy.

The survey was conducted from July 7 to 26, 2021, among a representative national sample of 2,086 adults. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is +/- 2.33 percentage points, including a design effect of 1.1817. The margin of error is higher for partisan subgroups or for partial-sample items. Partisan identification is based on respondents’ answers to a standard partisan self-identification question: “Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, an independent, or what?”

For full details, including the survey methodology, please download the pdf version of the report.

About the Authors
Senior Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Headshot for Dina Smeltz
Dina Smeltz, a polling expert, has more than 25 years of experience designing and fielding international social and political surveys. Prior to joining the Council to lead its annual survey of American attitudes on US foreign policy, she served in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department's Office of Research from 1992 to 2008.
Headshot for Dina Smeltz
President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Headshot of Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder served as the US ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013 prior to becoming president of the Council. Previously, he was a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution and served as director for European affairs on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council. He is the author or editor of ten books.
Headshot of Ivo H. Daalder
Marshall M. Bouton Fellow for Asia Studies
Council expert Karl Friedhoff
Karl Friedhoff was a Korea Foundation-Mansfield Foundation US-Korea Nexus Scholar and a member of the Mansfield Foundation’s Trilateral Working Group prior to joining the Council. Previously, he was a program officer in the Public Opinion Studies Program at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies based in Seoul, South Korea.
Council expert Karl Friedhoff
Assistant Director, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Council expert Craig Kafura
Craig Kafura is the assistant director for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a Pacific Forum Young Leader. At the Council, he coordinates work on public opinion and foreign policy and is a regular contributor to the public opinion and foreign policy blog Running Numbers.
Council expert Craig Kafura
Research Assistant, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Emily Sullivan joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2021 as a research assistant on the Public Opinion team.

Media Contact

Taylor Barton

Assistant Director of Communications
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