Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Has Obama lost his silver tongue?

A recent CNN poll shows President Obama breaking an inauspicious barrier: a slim majority of 51 percent now disapprove of his job performance while only 46 percent approve of it. President Bush reached a similar level briefly in 2004, recovered in time for the 2004 election, and then crossed the barrier once and for all early ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

A recent CNN poll shows President Obama breaking an inauspicious barrier: a slim majority of 51 percent now disapprove of his job performance while only 46 percent approve of it. President Bush reached a similar level briefly in 2004, recovered in time for the 2004 election, and then crossed the barrier once and for all early in the second term (see here and here). Obama is barely a quarter of the way through his first term and so there is plenty of time for his numbers to improve. Indeed, since the CNN poll closed before Obama won his historic healthcare vote, it may be skewed negatively and his numbers may have already bounced back up a bit.

What interests me about this poll, however, is not the overall number, but rather that for the most part President Obama scores the lowest on the issues he has made centermost and about which he has talked the most:

Health Care: 40 percent approve and 58 percent disapprove The economy: 43 percent approve and 54 percent disapprove Unemployment: 45 percent approve and 53 percent disapprove The federal budget deficit: 36 percent approve and 62 percent disapprove

A recent CNN poll shows President Obama breaking an inauspicious barrier: a slim majority of 51 percent now disapprove of his job performance while only 46 percent approve of it. President Bush reached a similar level briefly in 2004, recovered in time for the 2004 election, and then crossed the barrier once and for all early in the second term (see here and here). Obama is barely a quarter of the way through his first term and so there is plenty of time for his numbers to improve. Indeed, since the CNN poll closed before Obama won his historic healthcare vote, it may be skewed negatively and his numbers may have already bounced back up a bit.

What interests me about this poll, however, is not the overall number, but rather that for the most part President Obama scores the lowest on the issues he has made centermost and about which he has talked the most:

  • Health Care: 40 percent approve and 58 percent disapprove
  • The economy: 43 percent approve and 54 percent disapprove
  • Unemployment: 45 percent approve and 53 percent disapprove
  • The federal budget deficit: 36 percent approve and 62 percent disapprove

And he scores the highest on the issues that he talks about the least:

  • The situation in Afghanistan: 55 percent approve and 42 percent disapprove
  • Terrorism: 53 percent approve and 45 percent disapprove
  • The situation in Iraq: 51 percent approve and 46 percent disapprove

[The outliers from this pattern are environmental policy (55 percent approve, 37 percent disapprove) and perhaps education (56 percent approve and 41 percent disapprove).]

This pattern of comparatively low scores for the handling of signature domestic policy priorities and higher scores for the handling of foreign policy may be due to several factors. Perhaps the public just disapproves of Obama’s health and economic policies and approves of the national security policies. Or perhaps the public approves of the way Obama has pursued more of a bipartisan policy on national security than he has on health care, which passed on a pure partisan basis. Note that the Republicans, who were quite loud in shouting "No" on Obamacare have been the loudest "Yes" voices on Afghanistan. Perhaps the low numbers are just the direct result of all of the partisan shouting. Or perhaps Obama’s numbers on domestic policy are contaminated by the public’s total disdain for Congress, which has approval numbers in the low teens. Perhaps the public and the media have been so focused on health care that neither has not paid much attention to the wars and if they did they might not like what they see there. Perhaps the president is still benefiting from a commander-in-chief halo.  

If I were in the White House, however, I would be concerned about yet another possible explanation: perhaps the more the president talks about an issue the more he drives his own numbers on that issue down. I would worry about that because as a national security policy person, I do not want the president’s political advisors to have a perverse incentive to avoid talking about the war. There are other costs, not directly measured in public opinion polls, when a president avoids the national security issue.  

Among those costs is the one highlighted by Peter Baker in his account of how health care was crowding out national security: the avoidance of the topic might raise doubts in the minds of the allies about America’s resolve, a toxic doubt when they themselves are itching for an exit.  

Another cost is raising doubts in the minds of the military, a key audience for presidential rhetoric. The U.S. military have internalized a lesson of warfare since the days of Vietnam: when political leaders shirk their responsibility to mobilize and sustain public support for their wars ultimately it is the military who suffer. Therefore, the military want their commander-in-chief to demonstrate that he is as committed to the fight as they are, and one way the president can do that is by regularly explaining his war policies to the general public.

President Obama demonstrated his own commitment to Afghanistan by investing so much time in the fall to the Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 and by rebuffing his left-wing base by backing General McChrystal’s surge. His commitment to Iraq seems more ambivalent, but he does deserve credit for abandoning his more extreme campaign rhetoric and ratifying the gradual withdrawal advocated by Generals Petraeus and Odierno.

But I suspect that in the coming months that commitment will be tested by developments on the ground in both countries that cannot be ignored, not by the media, not by the public, and thus not by the president. It would be paradoxical and problematic for the Obama Team if they discovered that having the president speak to those issues seemed to undermine public support for them, at least on the margins.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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