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Amid ISIS Worries, Voters Warm to Obama's Economy

Will Obama get credit for the economy being less of a concern?. (Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)

Polls show voters are giving President Barack Obama higher marks for guiding the economy, but security concerns could be clouding recent snapshots of the electorate’s mindset.  

Trends in voters’ collective worries have transformed, for now at least, the 2016 election cycle into one focused in large part on national security and foreign policy issues. In recent months, terrorism has surged to the top of lists of voters’ top concerns nearly 10 months before the presidential and congressional elections. “I don’t think that’s a reflection that the president’s policies have worked,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a Republican up for re-election in 2016. “I’m guessing they’re saying national security is their top concern right now.  

“I think it’s a reflection on they’re concerned about their security,” she added in a brief interview. “Without security, you can’t have prosperity.”  

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Twenty-three percent of respondents to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released earlier this month listed the economy and jobs as their top worry, down six points from last spring. A December Gallup poll gave the economy under Obama even stronger marks, with just 9 percent of those responding pointing to economic concerns as their top concern —down from 17 percent in November.  

Terrorism worries shot to the top of both polls. Forty percent of all respondents said terrorism tops their lists, according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal. The same issue surged from 3 percent last month to 17 percent in December, according to the Gallup survey.  

Notably, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggests large numbers of Republicans are happy with Obama’s economic policies, with only 12 percent of GOP respondents listing it as their top worry. More than half of Republicans (58 percent) chose terrorism.  

Those results track with the most recent Economist/YouGov poll released this week , which showed more Americans are concerned about terrorism than the economy for the first time since the Great Recession. That poll showed that 18 percent of Americans say terrorism is their most important issue while 15 percent say the economy is.  

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So are voters essentially giving Obama a gold star just as he begins cementing his legacy? Not so fast, advise some economists and lawmakers.  

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., ranking member on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, agreed that it’s “a combination effect” of the ISIS threat and an improving economy.  

Still, Nelson said the polls show voters believe “the economy has definitely improved, that all of those jobs lost in the great recession and the near economic crash have been replenished, and that 250,000 jobs a month are being added.”  

The 9 percent of respondents to the Gallup survey that listed the economy as their top worry is the lowest number since late 2007, according to the firm’s Rebecca Riffkin.  

Boston College economics professor Robert Murphy attributes the shift in public opinion to two things: one, continued economic growth; and, two, the Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., attacks being fresh on their minds.  

“With unemployment at 5 percent, and the economy growing at a modest pace, and gas prices down, things seem pretty good right now,” Murphy said. “That leads people to believe the economy isn’t my biggest concern.”  

Data compiled by the University of Michigan suggest American consumers are feeling more confident about the economy than at this time last year.  

“People were feeling pretty good heading into the heart of the holiday season,” Murphy said. “It’s ‘steady as she goes’ as far as the economy. Now, if we hadn’t had these shootings, would the economy and jobs be higher on people’s lists? Probably.”  

The state of the economy and voters’ feelings about it likely will return to the 2016 campaign, said Steve Bell, who runs the Bipartisan Policy Center’s economic program. Especially if voters realize, as he put it, that “the best jobs are the ones being lost right now.”  

“The economy is slowly chugging along,” he said. “There’s no question that the better Obama does with the economy, the worse it is for Hillary Clinton because it will put the focus on terrorism — and that’s been a better issue for the Republicans.”

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