The public is broadly unhappy with the nation's progress, with nearly three-quarters of Americans saying they are not satisfied with how the war on terror is proceeding. That figure, following terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, this fall, is well above the previous high of 61% who said they were dissatisfied in August 2007.
The poll was conducted December 17-21, several weeks after the Bernardino shootings.
While less than half of Americans say the terrorists are winning, the current 40% who do believe that is 17 points above the previous high of 23% reached in August 2005. Another 40% say neither side has an advantage, and just 18% say today that the U.S. and its allies have the upper hand -- 10 points off the previous low for that measure, reached in January 2007.
Majority dissatisfaction with the war on terrorism crosses party lines, with even a majority of Democrats, 59%, expressing unease with the case prosecuted by the Obama White House. Seventy-nine percent of independents and 86% of Republicans also say they are dissatisfied with how it has fared.
A majority of Republicans, 55%, say they think the terrorists are winning, while most Democrats, 52%, feel neither side has an edge.
But Americans are holding out hope that something can be done: For the first time, a majority of Americans say government can prevent all major attacks if it works hard enough at it (few, however, see that happening). Just 45% say that "terrorists will always find a way to launch major attacks no matter what the U.S. government does," down from about 6 in 10 who said so in most previous polling on this question.
Fifty-three percent of Americans polled say the U.S. can absolutely repel attacks, with more likely than Democrats to express this confidence (58% of Republicans say all attacks can be prevented vs. 46% of Democrats). In a survey conducted around the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, majorities across party lines said terrorists would always find a way: 55% of Democrats, 62% of independents and 55% of Republicans.
Yet worries that a terrorist attack could hit home are at their highest level since 2005. Only about half express confidence that the Obama administration can protect U.S. citizens from future acts of terrorism. Overall, 45% say they are very or somewhat worried that they or someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism.
Fifty-one percent have at least a moderate amount of confidence in the White House's ability to protect citizens from terrorism or more. But just 17% say they have a great deal of confidence in this protection, down from 24% who said the same in January 2010.
This general worry and dissatisfaction is seen in approval ratings of Obama's tenure and for his handling of terrorism and ISIS. All ratings have held roughly steady since late November, in between the two attacks, but all are in negative territory.
Fifty-two percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of the presidency, 60% disapprove of his handling of terrorism and 64% disapprove of the way he's handling ISIS.
Given the surging threat, some Americans, and more than a few Republican presidential candidates, have begun calling for increased ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq in Syria. But Americans' shift in favor of committing boots on the ground appears to have been brief.
Forty-nine percent today favor sending ground troops, a shift from last month's poll, also conducted after the San Bernardino attacks, when 53% were supported it.
And there is still a disagreement over even the definitions of the U.S. engagement: More than a year after U.S. airstrikes against ISIS began, Americans are no more likely now than they were last fall to consider the conflict with ISIS a war. Fifty-seven percent of those polled say the U.S. is involved in a military conflict rather than a war, while 40% call it a war.
In late-September 2014, the numbers were almost exactly the same: 40% labeled it a war, 59% a military conflict.