The Washington Post

Obama’s latest political liability: The Israeli-Palestinian clash

The coffin of Israeli army Staff Sgt. Mosh Melako is carried into Mt. Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem last week. Melako was killed by Palestinian militants in battle during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip. (EPA/OMER MESSINGER)

President Obama gets mediocre marks for handling of international conflicts flaring up this summer, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. But yet another overseas crisis has emerged as a headache: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When it comes to Obama's handling of the increasing tensions in Gaza, the poll shows 39 percent approve and 52 percent disapprove, with one-third disapproving "strongly."

The negative marks come as Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry urged an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli airstrikes followed by a ground invasion have pummeled Hamas militants but also killed hundreds of civilians. The push to rein in Israel is risky for the Obama administration, given Americans' longstanding alliance with Israel -- an alliance that was confirmed in a separate Pew Research Center survey released Monday finding more blame Hamas for the current violence.

(Click here to see full poll results and crosstabs by group)

The reason Obama is weak on the Israeli-Palestinian issue? Subpar support within his own party and among younger people -- a key Democratic Party constituency in recent years. Sixty-five percent of Democrats approve of Obama's efforts, but this falls significantly below the number approving of him on foreign policy overall (77 percent). Likewise, while respondents aged 18 to 39 split evenly on Obama's general handling of foreign policy (47 percent apiece), this age group disapproves of his efforts in the Middle East by a 21-point margin, 54-33. Separate surveys from the Pew Research Center and Gallup have found younger Americans are significantly more skeptical of Israel's actions than are older Americans.

Even as Obama struggles with yet another overseas issue, though, his overall approval rating on foreign affairs has recovered somewhat. The Post-ABC poll finds 46 percent approve of Obama's handling of international affairs. That's up from 41 percent approval in June and better than Obama's overall job ratings in other public surveys. Another 50 percent disapprove -- a number that is unchanged in the past month (accounting for the difference in approval: fewer in the new survey volunteered “no opinion").

As with many things, though, Obama's detractors are more passionate than his supporters. More than twice as many "strongly" disapprove as "strongly" approve of his performance -- 36 percent to 16 percent.  The poll was conducted July 23-27 among a random national sample of 1,026 adults reached on conventional and cellular phones; overall results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 percentage points.

Obama also receives narrowly positive marks -- 46 percent approval and 43 percent disapproval -- for handling the controversy surrounding the Malaysia Airlines passenger flight which was shot down over Ukraine. Last week, the Obama administration released satellite images and other sensitive intelligence that it said demonstrated Russian complicity in downing the airliner.

But overall, the new Post-ABC survey adds to evidence of the public's broad disappointment with Obama's weathering of international crises. As Iraq lost control of vast swaths of its territory to Sunni insurgents in June, a Post-ABC poll found 52 percent disapproving of his handling of the issue. In mid-July, nearly six in 10 disapproved of Obama's handling of an influx in illegal immigration by unaccompanied minors across the Mexican border.

Previously, Obama also received poor marks for his handling of foreign affairs related to Russia, Syria and Iran, among others.

Those lackluster ratings have not translated to a solidly negative grade on foreign affairs altogether in the new Post-ABC poll, nor a noticeable drop in his approval rating overall. Americans, it seems, aren't too focused on foreign affairs just yet.

At the same time, such crises have taken attention away from some rare economic progress and a rise in employment, which have failed to cut through the public's longstanding negative outlook for the United States. And at a time when Democrats are worried about Obama's down-ballot effect in some key Senate races in red states, it's pretty clear Americans don't see a strong leader in the White House.

Scott Clement is a survey research analyst for The Washington Post. Scott specializes in public opinion about politics, election campaigns and public policy.
Peyton M. Craighill is polling manager for the Washington Post. Peyton reports and conducts national and regional news polls for the Washington Post, with a focus on politics, elections and other social and economic issues.



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