James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Do Americans Like President Obama’s Handling of Foreign Policy?

by James M. Lindsay
December 4, 2013

President Barack Obama speaks at a Democratic Party fundraiser in San Francisco. (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters) President Barack Obama speaks at a Democratic Party fundraiser in San Francisco. (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters)

The Pew Research-CFR poll released yesterday found that the American public’s skepticism about foreign policy activism has hit record levels. That skepticism is good news for President Obama given his reluctance to put U.S. prestige and resources on the line in messy disputes like Syria. The public isn’t itching to intervene overseas, and neither is the president.

Beyond that headline, however, the Pew Research-CFR poll contains little good news for Obama. Americans disapprove of his handling of foreign policy by a margin of 56 percent to 34 percent.  Disapproval of his handling of specific issues like Afghanistan, China, Iran, and immigration has jumped by more than ten percentage points since his second term started. In each case a majority of the public now gives him a thumbs down.

Nearly 60 percent of the public pans the president’s handling of Syria, which might seem surprising given that he has largely minimized U.S. involvement in the conflict. The poll doesn’t reveal exactly why the public disapproves of the president’s policy. Some respondents no doubt want him to do more to oust the Assad government. But given the overall skepticism toward foreign policy evident in the Pew Research-CFR poll—as well as what other polling on Syria shows—most people who dislike Obama’s handling of Syria probably do so because they opposed his proposal to launch airstrikes against Syrian chemical weapons sites.

The results of the Pew Research-CFR poll point to another potential problem for Obama: 51 percent of the public thinks he isn’t tough enough on foreign policy. That’s up ten percentage points from a year ago. This perception of weakness won’t matter if the world scene remains calm in 2014. But it could haunt the president politically if a crisis directly affecting U.S. security erupts, as could happen with Iran or in the East China Sea to name two obvious flashpoints. Americans might not be demanding an assertive foreign policy, but that won’t stop them from blaming Obama, whether fairly or not, if things overseas go wrong.

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