No sale for Obama on Syria

September 17, 2013

When President Obama addressed the nation from the East Room of the White House last week, he sought to answer a simple question about Syria: Why should Americans be invested in a complex conflict unfolding thousands of miles away?

(Reuters)
(Reuters)

"I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons," Obama said. But nearly a week later, Americans are split on the question of whether the United States has critical interests on the line, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday.

Forty-eight percent say they don't think America's vital interests are at stake in the situation involving Syria, while 45 percent say they do. Eight percent say they have no opinion.

The poll was conducted Thursday through Sunday. On Saturday, the U.S. and Russia reached an agreement for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons, a development that appeared to spare the Syrian regime the imminent threat of a military strike that Obama had been calling for in response to an alleged chemical attack the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people.

The survey results underscore the difficulty Obama has faced trying to convince a war-weary American public that what happens in Syria matters for the U.S. And it's a reminder that if the diplomatic agreement falls through -- and Americans say there is a high probability it will -- the president will have a heavy lift in front of him should he return to a call for a military strike.

Still, Syria ranks pretty high on the list of recent overseas crises when it comes to how Americans have viewed the link to U.S. interests. The only two that are clearly above Syria are the 2003 invasion of Iraq and in the 1994 North Korean nuclear talks.


Even as Americans are divided over the question of what the Syrian conflict means to U.S. interests, nearly half (47 percent) say Obama made a persuasive case in his prime time address for taking action against Syria, compared to just 32 percent who say he was unpersuasive.

But about half (53 percent) also say they disapprove of the way the president has handled the situation in Syria; nearly seven in 10 (68 percent) say they are not confident Syria will give up its chemical weapons even as 79 percent approve of a plan for them to do so; and nearly twice as many say Obama's efforts have weakened U.S. leadership as say he's strengthened it, 32 to 17 percent.

In short, there are serious doubts about both how Obama has handled Syria and whether he will accomplish his goal of preventing the government there from waging future chemical attacks.

Secretary of State John Kerry warned Sunday that "the threat of force remains" if Syria doesn't follow through on its obligations under the newly minted diplomatic agreement. But with the American public split in half over the question of whether essential U.S. interests are at stake, winning the argument back home for the necessity of a strike has been a tough sell for the Obama administration.

The stark divide may not matter as much right now, since diplomacy has appeared to win out over military action. But if diplomatic efforts collapse, the question of what Syria means to Americans will return in a major way.

Fixbits:

A gunman killed a dozen people at Navy Yard in Washington D.C. Monday, the worst loss of life in a single incident in the region since the 2001 attack on the Pentagon.

Democrat Bill Daley is unexpectedly dropping his bid for governor of Illinois.

The Senate has postponed a hearing on "stand your ground" in light of the Navy Yard mass shooting.

Gun-control advocate Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) once again called on Congress to take up the issue of guns after the Navy Yard shooting.

Former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAulliffe again outraised Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) in the Virginia governor's race.

Former comptroller Bill Thompson conceded to Public Advocate Bill de Blasio in the race for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York City.

Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell is stepping down to work on his financial footing.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) remains in control of the New Jersey governor's race: A new poll shows him up by 20 points over Democrat Barbara Buono.

A new survey in North Carolina shows Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's approval rating took a big hit after the recent legislative session.

Must-reads: 

"From Newtown to Navy Yard, unpredictable calamities upend Obama’s second term" -- David Nakamura, Washington Post

"Triumphant as Thompson Quits, de Blasio Turns to Next Race" -- Michael M. Grynbaum and Thomas Kapan, New York Times

-- Scott Clement contributed to this post. Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Chris Cillizza · September 16, 2013