The Pulse

Downward-Facing Obama

When the national mood goes south, even the president’s foreign policy successes get negative marks.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Fresh from signing an interim nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration must now sell the agreement to Congress and the American people. Notwithstanding the merits and demerits of the Iranian accord, that task could prove particularly difficult because of the public’s sour assessment of President Barack Obama’s handling of a range of foreign policy challenges.

The Affordable Care Act online fiasco notwithstanding, Obama’s overall job approval rating has fallen over the past year — including his handling of foreign policy. His job rating is now below 40 percent for nine of 10 foreign policy issues tested in a new public opinion survey, "America’s Place in the World," by the Pew Research Center. A companion poll of members of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan membership organization and think tank specializing in U.S. foreign policy, was similarly critical of Obama’s overall foreign policy track record, but more supportive of his handling of individual challenges.

Foreign policy, once a relative strength for the president, has become a target of substantial criticism. By a 56 percent to 34 percent margin, more Americans disapprove than approve of his handling of foreign policy. This opprobrium is sharply partisan: 82 percent of Republicans disapprove of the president’s management of international issues, as do 93 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who agree with the Tea Party. Only 24 percent of Democrats disapprove. In fact, of the 10 foreign policy issues tested, roughly half or more of the Democrats surveyed approve of the Obama’s handling of each problem, while a third or less of Republicans approved.

The survey, which was conducted in early November before the recent interim accord with Iran, found just 37 percent of the public approve of Obama’s dealings with Iran. And with just 17 percent of Republicans approving of the White House’s relations with Tehran, the sales job on the Iranian nuclear agreement could prove particularly difficult.

Just across the border, things aren’t much better. Only 30 percent of the public gives the president a thumbs up for his management of the situation in Syria, even though an earlier Pew Research Center survey found that two-thirds of the public supported his September decision to delay airstrikes against Damascus.

And even where boots are on the ground, Obama can’t buy a win. As tensions mount with Kabul over the timeline for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the conditions under which Washington would keep a residual military force in the country, Americans show little faith in Obama’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan. Just 34 percent think he is doing a good job.

There’s a similar sense that the president is mismanaging the ongoing strategic competition with China. More than half (54 percent) of Americans see China’s emergence as a world power as a major threat to the United States. But only 30 percent approve of Obama’s dealings with Beijing.

The one bright spot on the president’s foreign policy report card is the grade he receives for his containment of terrorism. Roughly half (51 percent) the public approves of Obama’s handling of that critical issue. But even then the president gets credit from only 33 percent of Republicans, while he is praised by 75 percent of Democrats. Part of this support may be due to the American public’s continued backing for the use of military drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Half say it has made the United States safer. A minority (27 percent) say drone actions have made the country less safe.

Like the public, foreign policy experts are critical of Obama’s overall foreign policy track record. But they are more supportive of his handling of individual international challenges. Of the members of the Council on Foreign Relations, 44 percent say Obama’s management of foreign policy has been worse than they expected, while just 16 percent say it has surpassed their expectations. Two-in-five say Obama has done about as well as they expected. Roughly half of Council members (52 percent) say the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy is not assertive enough, up from just 31 percent four years ago.

Moreover, just 38 percent of Council members approve of Obama’s handling of Syria, while 59 percent disapprove. These are by far the president’s lowest ratings by foreign policy experts on 10 foreign policy issues tested. And about seven in ten Council members (72 percent) say the reputation of the United States has been weakened by the way it has handled the situation in Syria.

Nevertheless, Obama gets positive job ratings from Council members for his handling of several issues, including terrorism (73 percent), Iran (72 percent) and China (69 percent). And a higher percentage of Council members approve of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan than did so four years ago (56 percent now, 42 percent then).

That said, it’s unlikely the president takes that much comfort from the lukewarm support of America’s elite. Foreign policy, once a relative strength for President Obama, now looks like a weakness. Such public doubts may complicate administration efforts to win congressional backing for the interim nuclear accord with Iran. And it may complicate White House efforts in pursuit of an end to the Syrian civil war and future dealings with China.

Bruce Stokes is an associate fellow at Chatham House and a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Twitter: @bruceestokes

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