On Nuclear Terrorism, a Muted Perception of Threat

Barely half of Americans see nuclear terrorism as a top-level threat and most doubt a two-day summit of world leaders in Washington will do much to address it – challenges for President Obama as he seeks to marshal support for international action.

Just 12 percent of Americans in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll call the chance that terrorists could obtain nuclear weapons “the single biggest threat the world faces,” language to some extent similar to Obama’s Sunday, when he called nuclear terrorism “the single biggest threat to U.S. security.”

An additional 36 percent call the issue “one of the biggest” world threats; that’s a net total of just under half, 48 percent, calling it either the biggest threat or one of the biggest. About as many, 45 percent, call it a major world threat but not one of the biggest, or less of a threat than that.

Expectations for the summit, moreover, are not optimistic. Forty percent express confidence it will result in better controls on nuclear materials, including just 7 percent who are very confident of that outcome. Fifty-six percent are not confident of progress – half of them, “not at all.”

Obama is meeting with officials of 46 other nations in what’s been described as the biggest U.S.-hosted gathering of world leaders since the United Nations was formed 65 years ago. He called the summit to push his proclaimed goal of securing the world’s nuclear materials within four years, warning that al Qaeda and similar terrorist groups are trying to obtain a nuclear weapon.

Beyond his talks with his counterparts on the world stage, this poll suggests Obama has work to do persuading average Americans of the threat level. Concern peaks among African-Americans, but among other groups only about half, or modestly more, call nuclear terrorism either the single greatest world threat or one of the biggest.

Despite today’s partisanship on many issues, this result is similar (ranging from 46 to 50 percent) among Democrats, Republicans and independents alike. One difference is a gender gap: Fifty-four percent of women see it as a top threat, vs. 43 percent of men. (To put the perceived threat in context, the question asked respondents to think about nuclear terrorism in light of other threats, including terrorists using other types of weapons, and conflicts among nuclear-armed nations.)

There is a partisan division on confidence in the summit, being held today and tomorrow in Washington. Among Democrats, who are far more apt to back Obama, 54 percent express confidence the effort will result in better controls on nuclear materials. That falls to 37 percent of independents and 30 percent among Republicans.

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