Why is Obama’s foreign policy now polling like Obamacare?

Daniel W. Drezner
June 24
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

President  Obama arrives at the second day of G7 Summit at the E.U. Council headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on June 5. Based on two recent public opinion polls, it appears that an increasing share of Americans do not trust the president’s steady hand on foreign policy.  Get it?  Steady hand?!  C’mon, that’s killer stuff! (Stephanie Lecocq/EPA)

One of the mantras that many foreign affairs watchers have uttered over the past few years is that the Obama administration’s shifts in foreign policy simply mirror the shifts in U.S. public opinion.  As Americans grow increasingly averse to expensive and risky actions overseas, so has President Obama.

So it’s pretty odd that two polls out in the past day suggest that  Obama’s foreign policy is increasingly unpopular.  The Washington Post/ABC News poll is pretty clear:

President Obama receives his worst marks yet for handling the situation in Iraq, with 52 percent disapproving and strong negative sentiment now outpacing strong approval by 2 to 1 (34 to 17 percent). …

For the first time in Post-ABC polls disapproval of Obama for handling Iraq outpaces approval, 52 to 42 percent. His ratings tilted positive the last time Iraq approval was asked in September 2010 – 49 percent approving and 45 percent disapproving, with nearly one-third of Republicans giving him positive marks (31 percent). But Republican support has plummeted to 13 percent in the new poll while independents have also shifted negatively, with the share approving of his Iraq efforts dipping from 49 to 40 percent. Democrats have been more consistent in approval of Obama, though their level of support fails to match Republicans’ opposition.

And the New York Times/CBS News poll is even more damning:

Dissatisfaction with President Obama’s conduct of foreign policy has shot up among both Republicans and Democrats in the past month, even though a slim majority supports his recent decision to send military advisers to Iraq to confront the growing threat from militants there, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

The survey suggests that most Americans back some of Mr. Obama’s approaches to the crisis in Iraq, including majority support for the possibility of drone strikes. But the poll documents an increasing lack of faith in the president and his leadership, and shows deep concern that further intervention by the United States in Iraq could lead to another long and costly involvement there.

The poll found that 58 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Mr. Obama is handling foreign policy, a jump of 10 points in the last month to the highest level since Mr. Obama took office in 2009. The spike in disapproval is especially striking among Democrats, nearly a third of whom said they did not approve of his handling of foreign policy.

Indeed, if one digs into the NYT/CBS poll, one finds that majorities of Americans support the specific steps that the Obama administration is proposing on Iraq.  Fifty-one percent support sending in advisers to the Iraqi military, 56 percent support the greater use of drones, and 77 percent do not support sending in ground troops.  Nevertheless, 52 percent of Americans disapprove of the overall Iraq policy.  Indeed, the striking pattern is that when Americans are asked about concrete policies, majorities tend to support the administration’s position. When asked about overarching policy towards Iraq, or towards the rest of the world more generally, majorities now tend to dislike what the administration is doing.  In other words, foreign policy is the new Obamacare when it comes to polling.

So what’s going on?  It’s not rocket science — it’s the difference between policy outputs and policy outcomes.  A policy output is, say, the decision to send military advisers into Iraq, or the decision to rule out the use of combat troops there.  A policy outcome is what actually happens on the ground — in the case of Iraq, a worsening sectarian war.  The thing about American foreign policy is that even the best foreign policy outputs do not necessarily translate into the best outcome, because the United States, for all its superpowery-ness, is not actually an omnipotent deity.  In the case of Iraq, there are a lot of other variables at play besides U.S. foreign policy outputs:  Maliki’s poor leadership, the neighboring situation in Syria, the Kurdish desire for an independent state, Gulf funding of ISIS and Iran’s sway over the Maliki regime.

When Americans are asked about specific foreign policies, they tend to support the administration, because they’re assessing concrete policy outputs.  When asked a more general question about foreign policy, or even foreign policy towards Iraq, they’re likely assessing the policy outcomes. And while Americans are reluctant to intervene overseas, they’re also not keen on Iraq falling apart, ISIS  acquiring a statelet, Russia annexing parts of Ukraine, or China bullying its neighbors in the South China Sea, etc.  Americans want the free pony — they want the U.S. to not expend blood and treasure overseas, but they also want the liberal order not to fray.

This is a bad beat for the administration, because it’s really far from obvious that its critics have any better foreign policy ideas.  Furthermore, the administration lacks a compelling narrative to explain to the American people why it’s pursuing the right course of action.  Obama’s “don’t do stupid s***” foreign policy doctrine might sound great in the White House mess, and, five years ago, it probably sounded pretty good to an American public sick of George W. Bush’s galactic foreign policy blunders.  Now it just sounds like a really low bar that’s simultaneously full of arrogance and devoid of any aspirational desires (even if it might be the right thing to do).

So the administration needs to gin up a better narrative — which, based on Ben Rhodes’ exhaustion recent lackluster foreign policy speeches, is not likely — or hope for better foreign policy outcomes.  Otherwise, welcome to the new normal on foreign affairs polling.

Am I missing anything?

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