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Public Still Supports Obama’s Foreign Policy


President Barack Obama talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the Oval Office. (WDCpix)

On the eve of his first State of the Union address — a speech likely to be viewed as a response to a new Washington pessimism over his domestic agenda — President Obama is recording consistent support for his handling of foreign affairs and national security, according to an overview of recent polls. But despite this stable if mild support for his international agenda, dissatisfaction with his handling of foreign and security issues is growing.

Ahead of the speech, Obama’s top aides have delivered a thorough defense of his past year’s actions on foreign policy, contending — as national security adviser Jim Jones did in a Monday speech — that his first-year task was to revitalize international support for an America weakened by the Bush administration. An early burst of domestic enthusiasm for Obama as an anti-Bush even broke the Republican Party’s traditional opinion-poll advantage on national security earlier this year.

[Security1] More recently, a look at changes in major polls over the past several months yields a picture that favors Obama, if tepidly so, on foreign policy. The afterglow of his first 100 days is clearly gone. What remains are stable pockets of support for both his administration’s foreign policy in general and specific priorities of his.

A Pew Research Center analysis of Obama’s handling of terrorism recorded 51 percent approval in early January, essentially unchanged from 52 percent support in early November, even after the failed terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines flight 253. While the number of people who believe his government is doing a good or very good job of reducing the threat of terrorism is down 10 points since Pew’s November survey, it remains at a robust 65 percent. CBS places it at 60 percent.

Similarly, Obama’s decision to increase troops in Afghanistan registers 45 percent support, according to a Quinnipiac poll earlier this month, a number that has risen and stabilized from the high 30s and low 40s before Obama’s December 1 Afghanistan speech. Yet even though Obama has yet to attract significant GOP criticism of his Afghanistan strategy, his disapproval rating on Afghanistan, according to Quinnipiac, is also at 45 percent. Pew also has Obama at 45 percent on his handling of Afghanistan, up from 36 percent in November — but his disapproval on the issue has slid from 49 percent to 43 percent in the Pew poll.

And on a general handling of foreign policy, Obama’s numbers in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll on foreign policy have remained steady at 50 percent since September, down from a high-water mark of 57 percent in July. Pew has a lower number — 44 percent — down from a June high of 57 percent. Quinnipiac pegs that approval at 45 percent, down slightly from 49 percent in October and November. CNN/Opinion research puts him at 51 percent approval, down from a 58 percent high in September. CBS places it at 49 percent, statistically unchanged since November.

All of which comes as a mild surprise for a Democratic president, whose party has been greeted with greater public skepticism about international affairs since the Vietnam war. Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, a progressive security policy and messaging organization, said the breadth of polling on Obama’s handling of national security shows “the core Obama national security bet — that he can balance heightened international outreach and diplomacy with a willingness to show toughness on terrorism, Afghanistan — is paying off.”

That apparent success comes in contrast to his eroding numbers on crucial domestic policy questions. A CNN poll released Monday found only 36 percent of Americans believe the 2009 economic stimulus bill will aid the economy. Obama’s health care plan registers a 40 percent approval rating — and 54 percent disapproval — in the latest CBS poll, and is imperiled after months of furious GOP opposition and the election last week of Scott Brown to the Massachusetts Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy. His foreign-policy and national-security numbers are slightly ahead of his overall job approval rating of 48.8 percent, according to Pollster.com’s average of major polls.

In an effort to portray Obama’s first year on the international stage as an expectations-defying success, Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, turned a Monday speech on Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy into a robust defense of Obama’s first-year accomplishments abroad. Speaking at the Center for American Progress, Jones said Obama’s major task in 2009 was restoring and strengthening U.S. partnerships, alliances and multinational fora to tackle a host of international challenges, from stabilizing the faltering global economy to rallying an “unprecedented level of international consensus” on Iran to abandon any nuclear-weapons ambitions.

“The challenge of restoring the reputation of the United States as a nation willing to commit to leadership, willing to commit to a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect,” Jones said, “is probably the defining feature of our foreign policy.”

One challenge for the next year will be winning congressional support for that international engagement amid a larger and emboldened Republican minority typically suspicious of such efforts. Jones returned Saturday from a trip to Russia to discuss a nuclear-weapons reduction treaty under negotiation. But that treaty will require 67 votes for approval in a Senate, necessitating the cooperation of an obstinate minority committed to inflicting political damage on Obama. Senate support is also crucial for Obama’s international efforts on global climate change, another priority Jones cited on Monday. Anecdotal evidence on even baseline Republican support for either is grim: James Jay Carafano, a leading foreign-policy scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, recently tweeted that a cap-and-trade system for carbon-emissions reductions is itself a “real national security threat” and that a pundit was “dead wrong” to assume the GOP will support the new treaty with Russia.

Still, the Republican opposition has yet to congeal around a foreign-policy alternative to Obama, despite a flurry of well-funded projects connected to former Bush-era figures like the Cheney family. Not only has the Bush legacy tarnished the Republican brand, but in May, for the first time in its history of national-security polling, Democracy Corps found that the Democratic and Republican parties were at parity on public confidence to keep America safe, erasing a decades-long Republican opinion advantage.

“The poll numbers suggest that the Cheney-led fear-mongering is not working,” Hurlburt said in an email. “Why? Because its chief practitioners are discredited, and because Obama’s had a consistent message — we face real threats and have better ways to face them — and a good team of messengers in [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates, [Secretary of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton et al. that the public takes seriously.”

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