The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thumbs down on Obama’s foreign policy

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Although President Obama’s poll numbers have gone up (coinciding with an uptick in the economy and lower gas prices), opinions about his national security policies and rhetoric remain staunchly negative.

In the latest Fox News poll, Obama’s overall approval rating is up to 45 percent, but a large plurality (47 percent) thinks he tries to downplay the Islamic terrorist threat; 62 percent think he should have gone to Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks; 54 percent think his policies in Middle East hot spots have mostly failed; 58 percent oppose closing Gitmo; and 60 percent want terrorists interrogated and tried in military courts.

Republicans are even skeptical about the president’s foreign policy positions. Although 50 percent of all respondents think we are as safe under Obama as we were before he became president and 34 percent think we are less safe, 60 percent of Republicans think we are less safe and 37 percent see no change. Also among the GOP, 76 percent think he underplays the terrorism threat, 70 percent say he should have gone to Paris, 79 percent say his Middle East policies in hot spots have failed, 81 percent want Gitmo open, and 65 percent want terrorists interrogated and tried in military courts.

One critical difference is that Republicans take the threat from Islamic terrorists much more seriously than does the general public. Republicans (62 percent) are more convinced than respondents collectively (50 percent) that a terrorist strike is “very likely.” On whether we are at war with radical Islam (68 to 56 percent) and whether terrorism is our greatest threat (64 to 52), Republicans put a higher priority on the jihadist threat. Still, numbers overall reflect that Americans are greatly concerned about a strike (84 percent think a terrorist threat is very or somewhat likely).

This all suggests that Republicans will select a hawkish nominee whose bona fides on Islamic terrorism are certain. The data also suggest that Hillary Clinton is in trouble unless she can differentiate herself from policies she helped design. At times she has talked a good game about distancing herself, but on every specific policy (pulling troops out of Iraq, engaging Iran and weakening sanctions, using only air power against the Islamic threat, ending enhanced interrogation of terrorists, hamstringing the NSA, doing an about-face on a military strike to enforce the red line, etc.) there is no daylight between the two.

Maybe that is why Clinton reportedly is considering waiting until July to roll out her campaign. Aside from the fact that her popularity goes down when the public gets a look at her as a candidate, it may take six months or so to figure out how to square her record and support for Obama with the public mood. If faced with an informed and tenacious advocate of reversing the Obama-Clinton-Kerry policies, she may have her hands full. Both for policy and political reasons, then, foreign policy has never been so important in a GOP presidential primary.