The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama made his foreign policy name ending the wars in the Mideast. That’s no longer enough.

President Barack Obama gives the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on May 28. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds President Obama's approval rating on international affairs has fallen to 41 percent, five points below his overall job rating and down six points since September to the lowest point in his administration.

Obama's weakness on foreign affairs may come as a surprise given the widespread popularity of several major policies. Over three quarters of respondents approve of his plan to draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan by 2016, and majorities supported slapping economic sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea and intimidating Ukraine. Obama's philosophy of resisting military action to solve the world's problems, as articulated in a speech last week, jibes closely with a public that increasingly thinks the United States should "mind its own business internationally."

So why aren't Obama's popular policies earning him a gold star in the court of public opinion? The data point to several possible explanations.

For one, simply adopting popular policies (or the limited number that are polled) does not guarantee popularity. Execution matters, too, as was made clear with the takedown of Osama bin Laden, and many of Obama's major foreign policy ventures have produced less than appealing results.

Since Obama took office, Americans have become less convinced the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were worth fighting. Whatever Obama's efforts were to salvage U.S. goals in the wars, Americans have become more skeptical about their value under his watch. And perhaps acknowledging the wars' heavy toll and elusive achievement as well as other foreign policy challenges, the public feels their nation is less powerful and respected in the world.

The public widely supported a deal with Iran aimed at neutering its nuclear weapons potential, but is doubtful it will actually work.

The White House's handling of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi has also made an impression on the public. Just 32 percent believe the Obama administration has honestly disclosed what it knows, while 58 percent think it has tried to cover up the facts. Those suspicions haven't changed much in the past year and point to public doubts about Obama's foreign policy which go beyond policy proposals.

A second reason is most Americans, especially partisans, have strong positive or negative views on Obama overall that don't change much from issue to issue.  Obama's approval ratings across five issues in the new Post-ABC poll fall within a six-point band from 39 percent (implementing the health care law) to 45 percent (Afghanistan). Fully 88 percent of people who "strongly approve" of Obama's overall job performance approve of his handling of international affairs, while 84 percent of those who strongly disapprove overall also give him negative marks on foreign policy.

But even this doesn't entirely explain why Obama's approval marks are now lower than his overall ratings. To explain that, simply take a sampling of news around the world, which has ranged from terrible to not-so-bad recently. Russia annexed Crimea and is behaving more and more like the Soviet Union, Syria gassed its citizens in a civil war (after Obama pressured them not to), the United States has failed to coax Israelis and Palestinians toward a two-state solution. Among the good news from Americans' perspective, the global financial system did not collapse and the United States withdrew from wars that long-ago lost public support. (Hooray?!)

The Obama administration says that its policies achieved the best possible solutions on these issues,  but the end result hasn't been seen as an era of success for the United States on the global stage.

All these factors weigh down Obama's approval on international affairs in ways that undermine many of the popular foreign policies he's advocated, and will surely inform public reactions to his performance going forward.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted May 29 to June 1 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults, including users of conventional and cellular phones. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.


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