As Obama addresses US strategy on Islamic State, how do Americans feel?

Six in 10 Americans say they are 'very concerned' by the rise of the militant Islamic State and other extremist groups, according to a new Pew Research Center poll.

Charles Dharapak/AP
In this image made through a window of the Oval Office, President Barack Obama speaks on the phone to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah from his desk at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, ahead of his address to the nation tonight regarding Iraq and Islamic State group militants.

Americans feel increasingly worried about Islamic extremism around the world – with 6 in 10 saying they are “very concerned” by the rise of groups including the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

That’s the core finding of a new poll, taken just before President Obama addresses the nation Wednesday night about how to counter the threat posed by the group, which is also known as ISIL or ISIS.

The Pew Research Center, which conducted the poll, hasn’t found such strong concern in surveys going back to 2007.

The Islamic State (IS) has been undertaking military actions in both Syria and Iraq, and has recently beheaded two American journalists, purportedly in response to US air strikes.

Some 42 percent of respondents give the US government poor ratings on reducing the terror threat, up 16 points from November.

Although most Americans still give the government's response a favorable grade, that 42 percent negative rating is the second-highest among more than a dozen Pew polls taken since the 9/11 attacks back in 2001. The only higher level of criticism (44 percent negative) came in 2007.  

All this is important context as Mr. Obama confronts key decisions about what course the US should take.

A recent CNN/ORC poll found that 8 in 10 Americans would support a vote in Congress granting authority for military action against IS, if Obama asks for it. And they supported the idea of more air strikes against the group and more humanitarian aid for Iraqis and Syrians.

But respondents in that poll also showed doubts, with two-thirds saying Obama doesn’t have a clear plan, and 60 percent saying further military action should occur only if other nations participate as well.

The new Pew poll doesn’t mean US concern about terrorist violence is at an all-time high. A separate poll by Gallup, also released Wednesday, found that 4 percent of Americans view terrorism as the most important US problem – well below levels seen in the early 2000s.

But in the Gallup survey, the concern about terror is newly heightened, up from just 1 percent who saw that as the most pressing problem in July. And over the same period, the share of respondents who said foreign policy is their top concern doubled to 6 percent.

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