A series of recent polls this summer suggest that public support for President Obama’s foreign policy has reached new lows. Soundings by the New York Times/CBS News, Washington Post/ABC News, Wall Street Journal/NBC News, Economist/YouGov, and Quinnipiac during the past few weeks all have Obama’s foreign policy approval ratings between 34% and 37%. Just to put it into perspective, this is about where George W. Bush’s foreign policy approval scores stood throughout much of 2006. In other words, not good.
Commentators have offered a number of possible explanations for the President’s currently dismal foreign policy ratings. One interesting theory, put forward by Daniel Larison of The American Conservative, is that Obama is too hawkish and interventionist overseas for the taste of the U.S. public.
I would suggest a different dynamic is operating here, namely: first term versus second term. By this I don’t simply mean that the approval ratings of second-term presidents tend to go down, although that may be part of the story. There is something additionally at work, peculiar to this President and his international approach.
During Obama’s first term, on foreign policy at least, he ended up giving the public much of what it wanted: the strike against Bin Laden, a downsizing of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an avoidance of major new ground interventions. Of course, most people understood that Obama’s claim to have “ended wars” overseas was nonsense. But even as those wars continued, the median American voter was relieved to see U.S. troops coming home.
The problem was that during his first term, and into his second, Obama’s foreign policy style began to have serious long-term consequences internationally. These consequences were not always fully or immediately appreciated by the general public. Nevertheless, they were real. For example, when Obama failed to sign a status of forces agreement with Baghdad in 2011, the public at large was not particularly interested. Nor for that matter was the White House. Yet this was, in fact, a very serious foreign policy failure, and without pretending that all the blame here lies with Obama, it really did help to encourage the subsequent resurgence of violent disorder inside Iraq.
Put another way: the White House isn’t only suffering from coincidentally bad news overseas. Rather, Obama’s foreign policy choices and decisions from the very start helped plant the seeds for numerous international challenges, and while he got away with it through 2012, the consequences are now coming back to haunt him – not just abroad, but politically at home.
Look at the changes in domestic perceptions of Obama’s international approach over time. The President usually received middling to respectable foreign policy approval ratings from 2009 until mid-2013. Indeed, this was one of his relative strengths, considerably higher for example than his approval scores on the economy. Then, starting in the summer of 2013, his foreign policy ratings dropped precipitously and never recovered. Ever since that moment, he has been rated lower on foreign policy than on many other domestic matters – a reversal from the first term pattern.
This sudden and dramatic drop in popular ease with his handling of international affairs cannot simply be the result of an overall decline in support, since his domestic issue ratings did not fall either at the same time or at the same rate. Until I hear a better theory, I’d suggest that what catalyzed this permanent, steep drop in Obama’s foreign policy ratings specifically was his disastrous handling of the Syria crisis late last summer. That grabbed the general public’s attention – and what it saw was a president whose leadership style seemed weak, dithering, and indecisive. To be sure, the median voter was no more enthusiastic about the prospect of U.S. airstrikes in Syria than was Obama. But the median voter also expects a president to show some minimal and visible sense of firmness, executive competence, and decision, whatever their chosen course – and, in this case, the lack of it was on display for the whole world to see.
What made the Syrian episode especially damning was that it corresponded with underlying and long-term popular suspicions regarding Obama: namely, that while he may have other admirable qualities, such as intellect or eloquence, he is not a very impressive executive or commander-in-chief. The President’s poor handling of the Ukraine crisis this year only reinforced that impression. Even people uninterested in foreign policy or skeptical of fresh interventions overseas know that you cannot issue one threat after another and then simply walk away. When unenforced “red lines” become a joke on late-night TV, you have a problem with the general public. The impression of ineffectual foreign policy leadership stuck, and since it corresponds to continuing realities, it has never been reversed.
There has consequently been a shift in popular perceptions of Obama’s foreign policy management from his first term to his second. And now the corks are popping – from Ukraine to Syria and Iraq to the East China Sea.
But is a majority of the American public calling for a strictly non-interventionist alternative? The diagnosis regarding Obama’s unpopularity should also influence the remedy.
Certainly the general public is focused on domestic affairs right now, war-weary, and ambivalent in its feelings regarding multiple international commitments. Still, ambivalence is not the same thing as isolationism.
If the American public had actually turned isolationist, we would not expect, for example, to find the following (and perhaps surprising) levels of support for specific U.S. foreign policy actions this summer, laid out in the very same New York Times poll chronicling Obama’s current unpopularity:
“Do you favor or oppose sending military advisers to Iraq?”
51% Favor, 42% Oppose.
“Do you favor or oppose the United States using unmanned aircraft or drones to carry out targeted attacks against militants in Iraq?”
56% Favor, 38% Oppose.
The same pattern holds true on numerous other specific foreign policy issues. According to multiple polls from over the last year, clear majorities of Americans support drone strikes against suspected terrorists, oppose further cuts in national defense, and would favor airstrikes against Iran rather than see that country build nuclear weapons. These majorities are even higher among Republicans, including Tea Party supporters.
Leading non-interventionists recommend the dismantling of America’s bases and alliance system overseas. Again, there is no evidence that a majority of the general public favors any such policy. On the contrary, solid majorities of the American public, when asked, say they oppose dismantling these alliances, and instead support a world in which the United States remains the leading power including the leading military power internationally. (YouGov, April/May 2012.) And note the results of a Pew Center poll from last December, in which 51% of Americans said President Obama was “not tough enough” on foreign policy matters. Some 5% in this poll said he was “too tough,” and 37% said he was “about right.” In effect, non-interventionists recommend that Republicans side with the 5% on this issue, saying that Obama is “too tough.” At the very least, this ought to raise questions as to whether the GOP would be well served trying to outflank Obama from a strictly non-interventionist direction.
Claims of a newly triumphant isolationism need to be put within a broader historical context. Americans have almost always said the U.S. should pay more attention to domestic issues. This was true during most of the Cold War, including, for example, the Reagan years. Building support for serious national security policies has never been easy. That is precisely why we need effective leadership on these issues. Fortunately, the general public is often inclined to recognize such leadership and reward it, even when voters do not agree with each and every one of the specific policies advocated. The reverse is also true: when a president’s handling of international affairs is weak or incompetent, eventually the American public will see it, holding him and his party accountable.
Obama is not a strong foreign policy leader. He just isn’t. The general public is now awakening to that fact. He scolds ineffectually, shifts blame, issues sweeping declarations without backing them up, and seems almost indifferent to the frequently dangerous disconnect between his words and his actions overseas. In truth, he came into international leadership carrying a deadly combination of practical inexperience, unrealistic assumptions, and vaulting self-regard – a combination he has never overcome. More and more people are beginning to understand this in their bones. That’s why his foreign policy ratings are down.