Talking to a House Divided

Can President Obama get a GOP Congress to play ball on his foreign-policy priorities?


Historically, State of the Union addresses are notably short on foreign-policy references (one analysis of the 2010 and 2011 speeches by Eric Ostermeier of the University of Minnesota found that international statements accounted for just 14 to 16 percent of the total number of sentences). So when President Barack Obama delivers his 2015 State of the Union tonight, no one should expect a significant focus on foreign affairs, despite the recent terrorist killings in Paris, the deepening U.S. military involvement in Syria and Iraq, and ongoing concerns over Russia’s intentions in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, what he chooses to say or not say is likely to be parsed more abroad than at home. And despite the fact that he will speak before a Congress controlled by Republicans, his speech comes amid widespread speculation abroad of newfound bipartisan cooperation in Washington on a range of issues that affect U.S. relations with the rest of the world. But such expectations exist against a backdrop of a partisan divide within the American public over many of these same issues, raising questions about the future of U.S. foreign policy.

Of course, there is no policy without politics, and here the president faces some strong second-term headwinds. Obama’s standing in public opinion polls shows only scant signs of rebounding — at 47 percent, it stands just 5 percentage points higher than his September 2014 low point (yet still better than George W. Bush’s rating at the same point in 2007). That said, Obama’s approval ratings remain strongly tied to partisan affiliation, with 80 percent of Democrats and only 10 percent of Republicans approving.

So what exactly Obama and the Republican-controlled Congress can agree to accomplish internationally in the year ahead may well be constrained by American public opinion.

Recent U.S. public opinion findings give reason for both optimism and pessimism about the internationalist mood of the American public. Americans’ isolationist sentiments, which had been at an all-time high just a year ago, seem to have eased a bit as the United States faces challenges posed by the Islamic State and Russia.

But Americans remain wary of becoming too deeply involved in world affairs. And they are skeptical about globalization’s impact on their jobs and wages. Moreover, Americans are polarized politically over strategic and economic issues such as Russia, Islamic extremism, climate change, and trade.

Isolationism has long been a recurring theme in American domestic politics, though it may be ebbing at the moment. In November 2013, 51 percent of Americans polled said they thought the United States was doing too much in helping to solve world problems, according to a Pew Research Center survey. But by August 2014, just 39 percent held such views. Meanwhile, the proportion of the public saying the United States was doing too little internationally grew from 17 percent to 31 percent.

Much of this turnaround may be attributable to public concern about the threat posed by the Islamic State and jihadi terrorism. Fully 57 percent of Americans surveyed approve of the Obama administration’s military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Nevertheless, Americans remain divided over the implications of such action: 47 percent worry it will go too far.

In addition, in the wake of recent events in Paris, 64 percent are very or somewhat worried that there will soon be another terrorist attack in the United States. And 49 percent say government counterterrorism efforts have not gone far enough to protect the country (versus 37 percent who think such efforts have gone too far).

Americans are also increasingly concerned about Russia. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) think the country is a serious threat to the United States, up significantly from the 44 percent who thought so in 2012, according to a recent CNN survey.

However, there are limits to what the American public is willing to countenance in response to the Kremlin’s provocations. In response to the actions of Vladimir Putin’s government in Ukraine, 68 percent of Americans held the view that Ukraine should be offered NATO membership and 64 percent supported economic sanctions against Moscow, but only 44 percent favored Washington sending military supplies and equipment to the beleaguered Ukrainian state, according to a 2014 German Marshall Fund survey.

What Obama says or does not say about trade in his State of the Union will be closely watched by leaders in Europe and Asia, both of which are negotiating trade deals with the administration. It is notable that, contrary to conventional wisdom, U.S. isolationism does not go hand in hand with protectionism. Roughly two-thirds (66 percent) of Americans say greater U.S. involvement in the world economy is a good thing, and a similar proportion believe that trade is good for the country. Moreover, 55 percent express the view that the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which may come up for a vote in Congress this year, would be good for America. And 53 percent of Americans surveyed by Pew support the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which Washington and Brussels hope to complete in 2015.

Nevertheless, Americans are skeptical of the benefits of such globalization for them personally. Just 20 percent of Americans hold the view that trade creates jobs, and only 17 percent believe it raises wages, suggesting that the argument made by the Obama administration and the U.S. business community in favor of these trade deals has little traction with the public.

The partisanship evident in Obama’s approval ratings also manifests itself across a range of international issues, complicating what can be expected in terms of cooperation between a Democratic White House and a Republican Congress. While 57 percent of Democrats fear that U.S. action against Islamic militants will go too far, 63 percent of Republicans are concerned it will not go far enough. And while 77 percent of Republicans are worried about another terrorist attack on the homeland, only 59 percent of Democrats share that concern. Moreover, while 57 percent of Republican respondents think that government anti-terrorism policies have not gone far enough to protect the United States, 48 percent of liberal Democrats, a plurality, think they have gone too far. Meanwhile, 64 percent of Republicans favor providing arms and military training to Ukraine, but only 54 percent of Democrats agree. And 60 percent of Democrats back the TTIP, but only 44 percent of Republicans do.

Getting things done with bipartisan support are themes now being stressed by both the Republican leadership in Congress and the White House. And Obama is likely to reiterate such sentiments in his State of the Union, especially with regard to issues of interest to a foreign audience. But the message sent by the American public is far more mixed: Americans support strategic and economic engagement with the rest of the world, but within limits, and they remain divided on many of these issues along partisan lines, whatever their party leaders in Washington say. Whether this will lead to bipartisan compromise solutions or yet greater acrimony over the direction of American foreign policy remains to be seen.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

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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