COLUMN

Lame Duck? Shots Fired.

Why a Republican win on Tuesday may push the White House into a more aggressive foreign policy posture.

Spencer Platt / Getty
Spencer Platt / Getty

Americans head to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 4, with major international issues — the U.S. effort to counter Islamic State (IS) extremism, how to deal with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian situation, Russia, and President Barack Obama’s general handling of foreign policy — likely to play a role in their vote.

Mid-term congressional elections often focus primarily on domestic concerns. But in the run up to this ballot, world affairs have intruded on the public consciousness, which heretofore had been increasingly inward-looking. This year, the American public is quite concerned about a number of international challenges. And by a 43 percent to 37 percent margin, they believe that the GOP would do a better job handling foreign affairs than the Democrats, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

Lame duck presidents often tend to focus a great deal of their energies on foreign policy in the last two years of their tenure, in part because the Constitution gives the White House ultimate authority over foreign policy — thus allowing greater freedom of action when confronted with recalcitrant opposition (or lacking the imperatives of running for re-election). But polls suggest that if the Republicans gain a majority in the Senate and retain control of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, a widely anticipated outcome, the GOP may be under pressure from its base to chart a different and more aggressive course on U.S. foreign policy than that pursued by the Obama White House.

Voters enter the polling booths convinced that the economy is the No. 1 election issue, according to the most recent CBS News survey. But a September Pew Research Center poll found that 75 percent of Americans said that terrorism was very important to their midterm congressional vote; likewise, for 64 percent of respondents, foreign policy was a key factor.

Much of this has to do with the public’s view of the president’s management of international issues. Currently, just 34 percent approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy, according to the CBS News survey. Only 38 percent approve of his specific dealings with the IS challenge. Just 37 percent back his policy toward Israel, while 35 percent approve of his handling of the situation with Russia and Ukraine, according to Pew Research.

Overall, a Pew Research survey found that 54 percent of the public feels that Obama is not tough enough on foreign policy and national security issues. There is a particularly partisan bent to such sentiment: 77 percent of Republicans but only 34 percent of Democrats say the president has not been tough enough.

Given such partisan views of Obama’s performance, it is no surprise that a recent Pew Research Center survey found that 61 percent of those who said they were planning to vote for a Republican candidate for Congress were doing so as a protest vote against the president. Only 38 percent who said they intended to vote Democratic planned to do so in support of Obama.  

If such sentiment leads to Republican control of both houses of Congress, the GOP electorate is fairly clear on what they want on foreign policy issues.

Republicans (78 percent, including 91 percent of Tea Party adherents) are more likely than Democrats (65 percent) to say that IS is a major threat to the United States. And members of the GOP (68 percent) are more supportive of recent U.S. military action against IS than Democrats (54 percent).

Looking ahead to the future of the Obama administration’s campaign in Iraq and Syria, 63 percent of Republicans are worried that the United States will not go far enough to stop IS. Meanwhile, 57 percent of Democrats are concerned that Washington may go too far. Indeed, putting boots on the ground is no longer a minority position when it comes to the GOP: 57 percent (including 65 percent of Tea Party members) favor sending U.S. ground troops into the Middle East to deal with IS, while 66 percent of Democrats oppose such an escalation.

The new Congress may also be confronted with what to do about Iran. By January, there could be an international deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, a prolongation of current negotiations with Iran, or a collapse of the talks altogether.

Republicans are more worried about Tehran’s nuclear capability than are Democrats: 74 percent of GOP voters, but only 56 percent of Democrats, say Iran’s nuclear program is a major threat to the United States. And they are more skeptical about Tehran’s intentions: in late 2013, among those who had heard at least a little about the nuclear talks, 73 percent of Republicans but only 48 percent of Democrats believed that the Iranian leaders were not serious about addressing international concerns about their country’s nuclear enrichment program.

This may result in serious domestic headwinds for the administration’s push to secure a nuclear deal. Republican congressional hawks will have support from their base to challenge any Iranian agreement, either pushing for an escalation of economic sanctions or even military action. Again in 2013, a Pew Research survey found that Republicans (80 percent) were much more likely than Democrats (62 percent) to believe that it was important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it doing so meant taking military action.

In another long-simmering Middle Eastern issue — the confrontation between Israel and Palestine — Americans have long supported the Israelis. But Republicans (60 percent) are more likely than Democrats (44 percent) to see the conflict as a major threat to the United States. And a 45 percent plurality of GOP voters say that Obama favors the Palestinians too much, while 71 percent of Democrats think he has struck a balance between Palestinians and Israel.

Moving to tensions in Europe, more than half (53 percent) of Americans, with no partisan division on this issue, say the growing tensions between Russia and its neighbors pose a major threat to the United States. Nevertheless, in April 2014, at the height of the Crimea crisis, Republicans were far harsher than Democrats in their criticism of President Obama’s handling of the threat. More than half of Republicans (55 percent) said the president has not been tough enough in dealing with the situation in Ukraine, compared with just 23 percent of Democrats.

President Obama is faced with an unsettling, but not unexpected, reality that he may face a Republican-led Congress. Clearly, that will make the administration’s ability to affect domestic legislation a struggle. But Obama’s foreign policy agenda might not be as insulated as he would like. Republicans voters’ support for a proactive, tougher stance on a range of international issues might push an emboldened Congress to confront the White House on everything from the fight against IS to bolstering NATO in Eastern Europe. For the White House, it could be a bumpy couple of years.

Bruce Stokes is the director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. @bruceestokes

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