- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
The New York Times has expressed some surprise that President Obama has thus far reaped remarkably little political advantage from the more hawkish elements of his terrorism policies. While the public gives President Obama generally high approval for his handling of terrorism, Obama’s overall approval rating has sunk dramatically. The Times concludes that it must be because economic issues have eclipsed security concerns in the minds of voters.
Doubtless that is true, but I think the Times story misses an important point: Obama’s overall approval rating might be even lower were it not for the high marks the public still gives him on terrorism policy. In other words, the Times story reads like the reporter believes the puzzle needing explaining is why, given all of the terrorism successes, Obama’s ratings are not higher? Perhaps the puzzle needing explaining is the opposite: why, given Obama’s domestic record, is his approval rating still hovering as high as the low 40’s?
More generally, however, there is another puzzle worth exploring: why have several years of fairly hawkish counterterrorism policy not improved the Democratic Party’s overall brand on national security? According to Gallup, Americans still see Republicans as markedly better than Democrats at "protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats." This has long been a central part of the Republican brand, though the public’s frustration with the Iraq war allowed Democrats to enjoy a temporary advantage during the last year or two of the Bush tenure.
After Obama got elected, the Republican advantage returned and has remained steady ever since. Frankly, I am surprised that Obama’s genuine successes, particularly the bin Laden strike, seem not to have translated into more tangible improvements in the Democratic Party brand on this issue.
Several things, alternatively or collectively, may be at work. First, it is possible that the Democrat brand would be even worse without the hawkish Obama policy to point to; one clue in favor of this theory is that Democrats are not lagging Republicans as badly as they did in the early years after 9/11. Second, it is possible that Obama’s hawkish actions alienate as many doves as they woo hawks, leaving him no better off in the polls; a clue in favor of this theory is that the percentage of respondents reporting "no difference/no opinion," has inched up in the Gallup poll from a low of 9 percent in 2008 to 13 percent whereas the percentage endorsing Republicans has stayed the same at 49 percent and the percentage favoring Democrats dropped from 42 percent to 38 percent. Perhaps some fraction of the public was hoping Obama would be more dovish and now is equally dismayed by Republican and Democratic hawks. Third, it is possible that the Democratic brand is undermined by party doves who publicly complain about Obama’s policies, albeit not as loudly as they complained when Bush pursued the same policies. And fourth, perhaps the public doubts the sincerity of Democratic hawkishness, viewing it as political posturing rather than a sincere expression of the party’s commitment to national security.