Commentary Magazine


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.

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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