Why Obama’s sagging foreign-policy support isn’t as bad as it seems

Polling this week suggests that Barack Obama is pulling ahead of Mitt Romney in key swing states and erasing the Republican candidate’s advantage on the economy. But the results include one piece of bad news: According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey conducted in the days after the attacks on U.S. missions in Egypt, ...

Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images
Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images
Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images

Polling this week suggests that Barack Obama is pulling ahead of Mitt Romney in key swing states and erasing the Republican candidate's advantage on the economy. But the results include one piece of bad news: According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey conducted in the days after the attacks on U.S. missions in Egypt, Libya, and other Middle Eastern countries, the president's approval rating on foreign policy dropped to 49 percent from 54 percent in August. That's the first time since before the Osama bin Laden raid that support for Obama's handling of international affairs has dropped below 50 percent in the survey.

The worst news for the White House is that, in an election that no longer revolves solely around the economy, all-important independent voters are souring on the president's performance on foreign affairs -- a key strength for the Democrats this election cycle. Forty-one percent of independents approved of Obama's handling of foreign policy in September, compared with 53 percent in August.   

But there's more to the picture. Not only could the decline in approval prove temporary (depending on how events play out in the Middle East) but, as NBC's First Read suggests, the drop may have more to do with increasing political polarization as the election heats up than with Obama's handling of the protests per se. According to the NBC/WSJ survey, Republican approval of Obama's foreign policy fell from 19 percent in August to 10 percent in September.

Polling this week suggests that Barack Obama is pulling ahead of Mitt Romney in key swing states and erasing the Republican candidate’s advantage on the economy. But the results include one piece of bad news: According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey conducted in the days after the attacks on U.S. missions in Egypt, Libya, and other Middle Eastern countries, the president’s approval rating on foreign policy dropped to 49 percent from 54 percent in August. That’s the first time since before the Osama bin Laden raid that support for Obama’s handling of international affairs has dropped below 50 percent in the survey.

The worst news for the White House is that, in an election that no longer revolves solely around the economy, all-important independent voters are souring on the president’s performance on foreign affairs — a key strength for the Democrats this election cycle. Forty-one percent of independents approved of Obama’s handling of foreign policy in September, compared with 53 percent in August.   

But there’s more to the picture. Not only could the decline in approval prove temporary (depending on how events play out in the Middle East) but, as NBC’s First Read suggests, the drop may have more to do with increasing political polarization as the election heats up than with Obama’s handling of the protests per se. According to the NBC/WSJ survey, Republican approval of Obama’s foreign policy fell from 19 percent in August to 10 percent in September.

What’s more, if Obama emerged from the crisis looking bad, Romney may have looked even worse. A Pew Research Center poll released this week found that 45 percent of respondents who followed news about the U.S. mission attacks approved of Obama’s handling of the crisis, while only 26 percent supported Romney’s criticisms of the president’s response. Among independents, 44 percent approved of the president’s actions and 23 percent approved of Romney’s critiques.   

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the NBC/WSJ survey did not see any change between August and September in the percentage of respondents who felt Obama (45 percent) would be a better commander-in-chief than Romney (38 percent). Another Pew poll released on Wednesday indicates that 53 percent of registed voters believe Obama would do the best job of making wise decisions on foreign policy, while 38 percent  think Romney would. More to the point, the survey finds that Obama enjoys a 50-39 advantage over Romney on dealing with problems in the Middle East (and these big leads hold among swing voters). "The recent turmoil in the Middle East appears to have had little impact [on] opinions about Obama’s approach to foreign policy and national security issues," Pew notes.

While we can’t conclude with certainty that the Mideast unrest is the proximate cause of Obama’s sagging approval on foreign policy among swing voters in the NBC/WSJ poll (after all, last week also featured tensions between Israel and the United States over Iran), it’s a likely culprit. The damage that the U.S. mission attacks inflicted on both candidates helps explain why the Obama and Romney campaigns quickly pivoted to other issues after a day of intense sparring over the events.

The lingering question is whether Obama’s approval ratings on foreign policy would be even worse had Romney decided not to say anything at all about attacks — and let the violence in the Middle East speak for itself.

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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