Three reasons why Iran and Syria are not Obama’s strong suits

January 28

If President Obama weighs in Tuesday night on his administration's efforts in Syria and Iran, he will be hitting on issues that the American public has been none too pleased with lately.

(Charles Dharapak/AP)
(Charles Dharapak/AP)

Nearly half of Americans say they disapprove of Obama's handling of the situations in Syria (45 percent) and Iran (49 percent), according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Obama is underwater on both fronts, with 39 percent approving of his handling of Iran and 33 percent approving of his handling of Syria.

The depressed marks are surprising given that the vast majority of Americans expressed approval of deals the Obama administration struck to strip Syria of its chemical weapons (rather than launch missile strikes) and restrict Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing international sanctions.

Why the disconnect? Three factors could be at work simultaneously:

1. Republicans are loyal opponents. While clear majorities of Republicans supported the framework of Iran and Syria agreements, roughly three in four still disapprove of Obama’s dealings with Syria (76 percent) and Iran (73 percent). In short, Republicans are largely judging Obama by different metrics than the agreements described in the poll, such as Republican leaders’ vocal criticism of both deals as being too weak. They also might not have given much thought to Iran or Syria and be substituting their general disapproval of Obama. (That substitution can occur for Democrats too).

2. Democrats also are not fully on board. While 81 percent of Democrats approve of Obama’s overall job performance, far smaller majorities approve of his handling of Syria (57 percent) and Iran (63 percent). On Syria in particular, one in four Democrats simply have no opinion on the issue, indicating Obama has yet to enshrine confidence among his base of supporters.

3. No “Mission Accomplished” moment. Diplomatic agreements lack pomp and circumstance, and Obama’s Iran and Syria agreements were no exception. Iran’s nuclear program was not immediately dismantled, and Syria’s chemical weapons were not destroyed. Indeed, security challenges have slowed the destruction of Syria’s weapons, and Iran’s compromise is still contingent on that country making good on its promises (about which Americans are skeptical).

As The Washington Post's Scott Wilson writes, Obama is likely to call in his State of the Union speech for patience with regard to Iran, where new negotiations to pare down the nuclear program are underway. Some in the Senate have called for the U.S. to take a harder line and impose new sanctions.

Meanwhile, in Syria, a bloody civil war is nearing its three-year mark and effort to make peace from the U.S. and others have been snagged.

It's not surprising that two key areas of U.S. foreign policy have divided the county along party lines in an age of intense partisanship and bickering. It's a reminder that Obama faces many of the same challenges selling the public on foreign policy decisions as he does on domestic matters.

In short, for now, politics doesn't always stop at the water's edge.

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Chris Cillizza · January 28