Mitt Romney plans to challenge President Obama broadly on foreign policy this year, and the presumptive Republican nominee will probably deliver a major address on the topic in April or May. If he is to convince voters that he would be better than Obama on the world stage, he has a steep hill to climb.
Americans trust Obama over Romney on international affairs by 53 to 36 percent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week. Foreign policy is one of Obama’s strongest advantages among 18 issues and attributes tested in the poll.
Not to say that Romney doesn’t have strengths — they’re just far from the foreign policy arena. Handling the federal budget deficit stood out as Romney’s greatest strength in the poll: he led Obama by 51 to 38 percent on trust to handle the issue. He also fared well on handling the economy overall and energy policy.
Interestingly, however, Romney’s weakness on foreign policy doesn't appear to result from Obama’s strengths. Americans give Obama middling ratings on international affairs overall: 47 percent approve, and 44 percent disapprove. Obama’s marks on terrorism are better but far from the stratospheric support levels he had after Osama bin Laden’s killing.
That might be good news in Romney’s camp, but even among Republicans, Romney struggled to win trust over his competitors. Twice as many Republicans and GOP-leaning independents in a February CNN/ORC poll trusted Newt Gingrich to handle foreign policy as trusted Romney, even as Gingrich’s overall support was plummeting nationally.
One one topic — Iran — Romney has found some traction. He has sharply criticized Obama on Iran, an area where the president is clearly vulnerable. Americans disapproved of Obama’s handling of Iran’s nuclear potential by 52 to 36 percent in a March Post-ABC poll, with twice as many strong detractors as supporters.
But it’s not clear whether Romney is landing clean punches. In February, 49 percent of voters in a Fox News poll were at least “somewhat confident” that Obama could stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons; 44 percent said the same of Romney. And Romney’s more confrontational approach may not ring as true to voters in the general election as it did in the Republican primary. Most Americans in a Post-ABC poll last month preferred diplomacy over preemptive military action.
Afghanistan may be an even rockier issue, as public support for continuing the mission is on the wane. Obama plans to withdraw troops in 2014, but support for the war effort overall has fallen since last year, with fewer Americans seeing the effort as worth the costs.
More than half of the public — 54 percent — says the United States should withdraw military forces even if the Afghan army is not adequately trained, according to a March Post-ABC poll. In a recent CNN/ORC poll, 55 percent said the U.S. should remove all troops before 2014, and just 22 percent wanted them to stay beyond that year.
Romney has yet to capitalize on these weaknesses, and his upcoming speech may represent a major attempt to do so. But he may need to go beyond merely criticizing Obama to convince voters that he’ll be a steadier hand on the international stage.
Foreign policy Wednesdays: Most Wednesdays we will feature a special poll watcher analysis of American public opinion on foreign policy. The series will be cross-posted at Foreign Policy Magazine’s Election 2012 page.