The public has little faith the government is adequately screening visitors to the country or could cope with an outbreak of an infectious disease, according to an AP-Ipsos poll.
Only one in five surveyed said the government is doing enough to scrutinize people crossing the border into the U.S., the poll found. Just two in five expressed confidence the government is ready for an epidemic.
The poll was taken while the Senate debated an immigration bill, supported by President Bush, that ultimately collapsed. The questioning also coincided with widespread news coverage of the government's clumsy efforts to track down and isolate an Atlanta lawyer believed to have a dangerous strain of tuberculosis. He was later found to have a less serious form of the disease.
"There's definitely a lot of things they could do to step it up," said Chris Bowles, 24, of Long Beach, Calif., a manager for a security company and one of those surveyed. "Most of our border security and screeners from the government, they seem to muck up a lot of things the government gets involved in."
The pervasive sense of futility about government security efforts comes less than two years after the plodding federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which flooded New Orleans and devastated the Gulf Coast. Analysts have said Katrina left many people questioning whether the government would come to the rescue in the next major national emergency.
"There was no plan, there was just chaos," Robert Vasil, 62, a retired school administrator from Parma, Ohio.
Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, said the survey shows people want tighter identification requirements at the border, as the Bush administration has sought, at a time when terrorists remain eager to attack.
He said the government has made great progress in preparing for potential disease outbreaks or bioterrorism attacks. But, he added, "We're the first to admit there's more distance to go."
With only 19 percent saying the government is doing enough to screen people at the borders, skepticism was expressed most sharply by older people, whites, the lesser educated and rural residents.
Some of the harshest critics were people the administration normally would consider allies: Eight in 10 conservatives said the government does not do enough to check visitors, compared with six in 10 liberals. In addition, 87 percent of Republicans were dissatisfied, compared with 73 percent of Democrats.
"I hate to see our security compromised to the degree it has been compromised by this administration," said Robert Broyles, 60, an architect from Lewiston, Idaho. He said he twice has voted for George W. Bush.
Many conservatives and Republicans were the chief opponents of the immigration bill, a compromise between Bush and Senate leaders. It included steps for letting many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. gain legal status.
Forty-one percent expressed confidence in the government's ability to handle an epidemic. The biggest doubters included rural residents, Democrats and independent voters, and liberals and moderates. About two-thirds of Democrats and independents said they were not confident about the government's performance, as did about half of Republicans.
"Truthfully, I think that would be handled more on the local level," Vickie Shuder, 59, a nurse from Syracuse, Ind., said of government efforts to control an epidemic. "We're the ones in the pit."
The survey indicates that people's faith in the government's competence in responding to emergencies may be eroding.
In April 2006, an AP-Ipsos survey found a slightly greater proportion — 47 percent — saying they were confident the government would be able to manage an outbreak of bird flu among humans.
The AP-Ipsos poll was conducted June 4-6. It involved telephone interviews with 1,000 randomly chose adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.