Commentary Magazine


Topic: public opinion

Déjà Vu? Public Opinion on Obama’s ISIS Plan Starting to Look Familiar

The Washington Post has some relatively good news for the president–relatively being the key word there. The latest Washington Post/ABC poll finds 50-percent approval for Obama’s handling of the threat from ISIS after announcing and commencing air strikes in Syria. Only 44 percent disapprove. Before Syria was involved, only 42 percent approved of his handling of this one issue. But there is reason for any optimism to be tempered with caution.

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The Washington Post has some relatively good news for the president–relatively being the key word there. The latest Washington Post/ABC poll finds 50-percent approval for Obama’s handling of the threat from ISIS after announcing and commencing air strikes in Syria. Only 44 percent disapprove. Before Syria was involved, only 42 percent approved of his handling of this one issue. But there is reason for any optimism to be tempered with caution.

As Aaron Blake notes, “It has been eight months since Obama last cracked half the American public on any given issue — foreign policy or otherwise — in Washington Post/ABC News polling.” That should be encouraging for the president, as it means the numbers are moving in the right direction. But as Ed Morrissey points out, that 50 percent is actually noticeably lower than the percent of the public who had earlier said they would support this particular strategy. Morrissey writes, correctly:

Getting to 50% approval on a plan which 68% of Americans wanted three weeks ago isn’t really much of an accomplishment. In fact, it looks a little like — how to say it? – leading from behind.

Additionally, he writes that the boost in support is coming in part from Republicans, who are more likely to support hawkish policies. That’s not new, and it’s not really expanding Obama’s base of support–at least not in a way that could overflow onto other issues. (Republicans are unlikely to approve of Obama’s handling of health care or the economy no matter how successful are the anti-ISIS strikes.)

And in fact, we have precedent for warning the president of this effect. Let’s turn the clock back a few years to 2009, when we saw a very similar pattern on a very similar issue.

On December 1, 2009, Obama announced a surge for Afghanistan of an additional 30,000 troops. On the eve of that announcement, Gallup found his approval rating on his prosecution of the Afghanistan war was slipping, from 56 percent in July of that year to 49 percent in September and finally 35 percent just before the speech. After the announcement, Gallup found 51 percent approved of the Afghan surge, including a majority of Republicans and Democrats. Quinnipiac found even higher support for the plan, plus this, as Bloomberg explained: “Also, 57 percent said fighting in Afghanistan was the right course of action, up 9 points from a similar survey released Nov. 18.”

That latter nugget was arguably more important, because it showed that–as is the case with the president’s plan to fight ISIS–Americans approved of the idea behind the strategy. That is, they still wanted to fight, and Obama’s plan matched up to those preferences. Bloomberg added that it was an improvement on “Obama’s handling of the Afghan war, with 45 percent supporting him and 45 percent opposing him. That was a 7-point gain for the president.”

Gallup found Obama’s overall job approval got a bit of a bump too, reaching 52 percent after the announcement. But that dropped a few days later to 47 percent, which represented (at the time) a new low for the administration (though the administration was less than a year old).

Signs of trouble appeared even among the good news back then. For example, not even a majority of Americans believed the goals of the Afghanistan policy they supported would be met.

Which brings us back to ISIS. Obama said he “will not commit you and the rest of our Armed Forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” instead favoring air strikes. But a Wall Street Journal/NBC/Annenberg poll published over the weekend found the public wasn’t buying it: “72 percent of Americans believe the United States will still use its ground troops anyway against ISIS, versus just 20 percent who think it won’t.”

So there’s skepticism on the feasibility of Obama’s plan from the beginning. That doesn’t necessarily doom it in the eyes of the public: according to that same poll, a plurality (45 percent) support using ground troops if military commanders want them, with 37 percent opposed.

You can see what makes this particular issue so dicey for the president. The public seems ahead of him not only on the need to destroy ISIS but also on the possibility of using ground troops. So he could find that while the public isn’t exactly clamoring for another land war, they’re not enamored of too much restraint either. It looks less like a formula for presidential success and more like a formula to run afoul of virtually everyone’s expectations. Such are the perils of leading from behind a fickle public.

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Americans Have Corrosive Dissatisfaction for Our Political System

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll revealed some noteworthy data about the public’s attitude toward our political system. When asked about how satisfied they were with it, here’s what they found:

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A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll revealed some noteworthy data about the public’s attitude toward our political system. When asked about how satisfied they were with it, here’s what they found:

Very Satisfied: 2 percent
Somewhat Satisfied: 17 percent
Somewhat Dissatisfied: 30 percent
Very Dissatisfied: 49 percent
Not Sure: 2 percent

So 19 percent are very/somewhat satisfied with our political system while 79 percent are somewhat/very dissatisfied–and nearly half are very dissatisfied.

“We’re in the summer of our discontent,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “Americans are cranky, unhappy.”

Indeed they are, and they have ample reasons to feel as they do. Of course, they are the very citizens who elected the very lawmakers who operate the very system they verily hate, so there’s plenty of blame to go around. Our broken system is the result of our divided selves.

Still, whatever the causes–and there are many of them–it can’t be good when there’s such massive dissatisfaction with our political system. For one thing, we have urgent challenges that require a political system that works, that people have confidence in. Beyond that, though, our political system–the extraordinary handiwork of our founding generation–produced what Lincoln called an “inestimable jewel.” It is one of the main reasons we revere our country. Sustained contempt for our political system is corrosive. It undermines our affections for America. And unless it is reversed, it will find increasingly disturbing outlets and end up doing durable damage to the nation we love.

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How Obama Misread the Public

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows public support for President Obama’s foreign policy at 37 percent–a record low. How can this be when an earlier Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 47 percent of those surveyed want the U.S. to be “less active” abroad? Isn’t a “less active”–aka “lead from behind”–foreign policy precisely what Obama has been delivering? If so, why isn’t the public rapturous?

I am reminded of the old saying in football and other sports: When the coach starts listening to the fans he will before long join their ranks. President Obama has been listening to the public and giving the voters precisely what they say they want. The only problem is the public is schizophrenic. It doesn’t know what it wants.

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A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows public support for President Obama’s foreign policy at 37 percent–a record low. How can this be when an earlier Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 47 percent of those surveyed want the U.S. to be “less active” abroad? Isn’t a “less active”–aka “lead from behind”–foreign policy precisely what Obama has been delivering? If so, why isn’t the public rapturous?

I am reminded of the old saying in football and other sports: When the coach starts listening to the fans he will before long join their ranks. President Obama has been listening to the public and giving the voters precisely what they say they want. The only problem is the public is schizophrenic. It doesn’t know what it wants.

On the one hand Americans like the idea of letting others sort out their own problems, of pulling back, and focusing on “nation-building at home.” On the other hand Americans don’t like cutting deals with terrorists (to release Bowe Bergdahl), letting other states get invaded with impunity (Ukraine) or seeing a hard-won victory in Iraq unravel following American withdrawal.

What Americans really don’t like is when they perceive a lack of leadership in the Oval Office–when the U.S. does not look strong abroad and when our enemies are on the march. That is the case now.

President Obama is not doing what he’s doing in foreign policy because of the public opinion polls; he’s doing it because he really believes in the benefits of retreat and retrenchment. But no doubt he has been comforted in his decisions by the public opinion surveys which show large public approval of his most dovish actions. In retrospect that public support turns out to be illusory.

So now Obama should take with a grain of salt polls which show that the public opposes further involvement in Iraq. That may be the case but the public also opposes the establishment of terrorist states. Obama should have the courage to do the right thing in Iraq–as President Bush did during the surge which was initially unpopular–regardless of what the polls say today.

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The End of Obama’s “New Beginning”

It seems so so long since President Obama’s famous Cairo speech.

On June 4, 2009, speaking at Cairo University, the president, who still has not visited America’s most stalwart ally in the region, Israel, told his listeners that he was turning the page on the acrimony that had previously defined relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world: “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

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It seems so so long since President Obama’s famous Cairo speech.

On June 4, 2009, speaking at Cairo University, the president, who still has not visited America’s most stalwart ally in the region, Israel, told his listeners that he was turning the page on the acrimony that had previously defined relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world: “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

To show how serious he was, he accepted on behalf of America a generous measure of blame for strained relations with Muslim countries, saying, “The attacks of September 11, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust…. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

That speech was titled, portentously, “A New Beginning.” Now, more than three years later, as American legations across the Middle East find themselves under siege from angry mobs, it appears that Obama was about as successful in rolling back the tides of anti-Americanism as he was in slowing the rise of the oceans and healing the planet. Even Obama’s personal popularity, once stratospheric around the world, has slipped significantly since he took office. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, support for Obama has waned in Europe and Japan but still remains high there (at 80% and 74% respectively). He has done worse in Russia (36% approval), China (38%), and Mexico (42%). And he has done worst of all in the very Muslim countries where he expended so much effort to improve his–and his country’s–image. Obama’s popularity in the Muslim world was never that high to begin with (33% in 2009) and it has fallen to 24%. That is indicative of falling support for the U.S. On Obama’s watch, the percentage expressing favorable attitudes toward the U.S. in the Muslim world has fallen from 25% to 15%.

This is not necessarily a disaster–many of us had argued all along that there is a certain in-built resentment of the U.S. around the world and especially in the Middle East that is very hard to budge, and that what counts more than courting popularity is pursuing policies that are in our national interest. Obama has actually done this in some areas and paid the price in lost approval. Pew reports that the biggest drag on America’s global image is the campaign of drone strikes which Obama has accelerated. “In 17 of 20 countries,” Pew found, “more than half disapprove of U.S. drone attacks targeting extremist leaders and groups in nations such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.”

Thankfully, Obama has continued the strikes anyway–because they are one of our best tools for fighting terrorists. Implicitly, at least, he seems to be recognizing that foreign policy is not a popularity test.

Still, it must be particularly bitter for Obama to see how unpopular the U.S. remains despite nearly four years of his leadership. Perhaps in his memoirs he might even express some remorse over his relentless criticism of his predecessor for making America so unpopular.

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