Public opinion on president's foreign policy is a muddle

Obama has support on policies, not the principles

WASHINGTON, D.C. - American public opinion about the country’s foreign policy is a conundrum. Polls show Americans support President Barack Obama’s policy on most every big issue, but they disapprove of his handling of foreign policy overall. They like his policies, but not his policy. They like what he’s done, but not his leadership.

Or maybe they just don't like the way the world is right now.

Robert Kagan, the foreign policy wise man from the Brookings Institution, articulated the paradox of Obama’s foreign policy in a Washington Post column a few weeks ago.

The majority of Americans have opposed any meaningful U.S. role in Syria, have wanted to lessen U.S. involvement in the Middle East generally, are eager to see the “tide of war” recede and would like to focus on “nation-building at home.” Until now, the president generally has catered to and encouraged this public mood, so one presumes that he has succeeded, if nothing else, in gaining the public’s approval.

Yet, surprisingly, he hasn’t. The president’s approval ratings on foreign policy are dismal. 

He is right.

An NBC News/Wall St. Journal poll taken at the end of April showed 38 percent approve of the way the president is handling foreign policy, and 53 percent disapprove.

But what exactly do they disapprove of?

As Kagan points out, most Americans, like Obama, have consistently opposed deeper involvement in hot spots such as Syria or the Ukraine.  They wanted to get the United States out of Iraq and Afghanistan, which Obama did.  They support trying to increase the business we do with China and Asia, which Obama has done.  They liked it when Osama bin Laden was found and killed.

Where’s the rub, exactly?  Here’s Kagan’s theory:

A majority of Americans may not want to intervene in Syria, do anything serious about Iran or care what happens in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt or Ukraine. They may prefer a minimalist foreign policy in which the United States no longer plays a leading role in the world and leaves others to deal with their own miserable problems. They may want a more narrowly self-interested American policy. In short, they may want what Obama so far has been giving them. But they’re not proud of it, and they’re not grateful to him for giving them what they want.

For many decades Americans thought of their nation as special. They were the self-proclaimed “leader of the free world,” the “indispensable nation,” the No. 1 superpower. It was a source of pride. Now, pundits and prognosticators are telling them that those days are over, that it is time for the United States to seek more modest goals commensurate with its declining power. And they have a president committed to this task. He has shown little nostalgia for the days of U.S. leadership and at times seems to conceive it as his job to deal with the “reality” of decline.

Perhaps this is what they want from him. But it is not something they will thank him for. To follow a leader to triumph inspires loyalty, gratitude and affection. Following a leader in retreat inspires no such emotions.

I’m not sure if Kagan is criticizing the president for not more assertively leading the country where it doesn’t want to be led.  But his take on our frame of mind, our inconsistencies and immaturities, is sharp.

This inner conflict we have between wanting to feel like a big powerful superpower but not wanting to actually use power, soldiers and treasure abroad comes out in the polling.  Two graphics based on a recent poll by Pew tell the story.

To a degree not seen in 40 years of polling, Pew found that Americans now think the United States is less important globally than it was 10 years ago.  And they don’t like it.

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Pew Research Center

A huge slice, 70 percent, thinks the United States is less respected. That doesn’t feel good. But at the same time, a growing majority thinks America should mind its own business.

Image caption here

Pew Research Center

It seems like we have a cake-and-eat-it issue going on here.

Fareed Zakaria thinks Obama can fix his part of the problem, the job approval part, with better optics:

Obama’s restraint has served him well in avoiding errors. But it has also produced a strangely minimalist approach to his constructive foreign policy. From the Asia pivot to new trade deals to Russian sanctions, Obama has put forward an agenda that is ambitious and important, but he approaches it cautiously, as if his heart is not in it, seemingly pulled along by events rather than shaping them. Once more, with feeling, Mr. President!

Really? A more emphatic performance will do the trick?

Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum feels the president’s pain:

I wonder: Has any president in history been so widely criticized for doing everything right but not crowing loudly enough about it? I mean, it's nice to think that a silver tongue would have gotten congressional Republicans to support intervention in Syria and Germans to approve harsher sanctions against Russia, but it's just not so. I think everyone knows this perfectly well, but we find it so frustrating that we blame Obama for it anyway. It's as if we're all five-year-olds.

Which, come to think of it, maybe we are. We want this circle squared—triumph on every front but without any actual exercise of military power—and when we don't get it we demand someone to blame, logic be damned. Before long we're going to be holding Obama responsible for the fact that pi doesn't equal three.

Drum might take comfort from Andrew Kohut, one of the dean’s of public opinion research.  Writing in Politico, Kohut says he doesn’t think Obama or the Democrats will be punished because the president is seen as weak on foreign policy. He writes,  “The GOP’s difficulty with exploiting public discontent with Obama’s handling of foreign policy is that the president’s unwillingness to be more assertive in Syria or Ukraine reflects the public’s mood—including Republicans.”

It appears that foreign policy will not be among the most debated issues in this year’s midterms. Given the tenor of campaign rhetoric these days,  that might actually raise the quality of debate over our foreign policy.

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