As Foreign Tensions Escalate, Obama Sees a Drop

During the 2012 election, one of the perceived advantages President Obama held over Mitt Romney was the president’s seemingly firm grasp of foreign policy issues.  During the summer months of the campaign, fully 47{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of voters felt President Obama was better equipped to handle foreign affairs issues compared to 32{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} for Romney according to a July 2012 NBC/WSJ poll.

This positive sentiment was not unwarranted – the president was coming off a laundry list of notable achievements including the killing of Osama bin Laden, the intervention in Libya, ending US military engagement in Iraq, successful targeted attacks against al-Qaeda, and promoting the spread of democracy during the Arab Spring.

However, at the dawn of his second term, this sentiment is transforming with the emergence of a new set of challenges and threats extending outside our borders.  In December 2012, according to a NBC/WSJ poll, Obama’s job approval on foreign policy issues was a strong net positive, 52{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approve- 40{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disapprove.  Yet, after months of diplomatic challenges ranging from nuclear tests in North Korea, chemical weapons in Syria and reignited debate over the Benghazi attacks, Americans are now split over the President’s ability to navigate these issues (46{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approve – 43{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disapprove).  As noted in the chart below, this is his lowest level of approval on foreign policy issues tested since coming into office in 2009.

chart 1

The shift has come mainly from Independent voters.  In December, Independents gave the president good marks on his foreign policy agenda, 48{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approve-42{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disapprove.  However, in the most recent polling these numbers have shifted dramatically, 37{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approve-53{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disapprove.  Looking at key contributors to his re-election efforts, we also see a drop in his foreign policy approval numbers among Democrats (83{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approve in December to 78{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} in April 2013), self-identified liberals (82{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} in December to 69{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} in April 2013), and women (57{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} in December to 45{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} in April 2013).

As the foreign disputes become more pronounced, Americans want to see the President is firmly in charge of the situation.  The data indicates the opposite – confidence in the Administration’s ability declines as tensions and issues become more heightened.

To better understand some of the underlying reasons behind Obama’s recent drop in foreign policy approval, let’s look at some of the shifting opinions in key conflict zones.


In the past, Kim Jong Il used North Korean provocation for aid and oil from allied nations.  However, the motives and intentions of his successor, Kim Jong Un, in North Korea’s latest act of aggression are largely unknown – making his heightened rhetoric against the U.S. more worrisome.  Consider some of his actions in 2013 alone: he threatened nuclear attack on the U.S. through a nationally distributed propaganda video, re-declared a state of war with South Korea, began construction again at the Yongbyon nuclear site to enrich uranium, barred South Korean workers from entering the shared industrial complex with the north, repositioned missiles to the coast and conducted a third nuclear test amid near universal condemnation.

Perhaps for these reasons, 83{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans view North Korea as a critical threat, according to polling conducted by Gallup in February prior to the third nuclear test.  However, what has become more alarming is the urgency of the perceived threat.  According to a CNN/ORC poll conducted in April, 41{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans feel as though North Korea presents an “immediate threat,” and as seen on the chart below, that is at the highest level tested by more than 13-points.

chart 2

Although only 28{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans believe North Korea would attack the U.S. in the next 6 months (Gallup, April 2013), additional polling by Pew Research Center stated that a plurality of Americans, 47{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}, believe North Korea’s leadership is willing to follow through on its threat to use nuclear weapons.   41{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans felt the threats lack merit.   Moreover, in the same poll, when asked if North Korea had the capability of launching a nuclear missile that could reach the U.S., 47{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} believed that they were indeed capable – perhaps a contributing factor in Americans’ new sense of urgency in addressing the North Korean hostility.

North Korean aggression has been developing for decades.  However there is now diminishing optimism that the situation can be successfully resolved using only economic and diplomatic efforts.  For the first time, a majority of Americans, 51{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}, do NOT feel the situation can be resolved through diplomacy.  Only 46{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} believe diplomatic measures can be successful.

chart 3

While military involvement is always a last resort, a clear justification for military engagement by the U.S. against North Korea arises if they attack South Korea.  According to the CNN/ORC poll, six-in-ten Americans, 61{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}, support military action if South Korea is attacked – a sentiment that reaches strong majorities across all political parties.  Interestingly, even among South Koreans, where threats from North Korea are commonplace, there is concern about the most recent nuclear test.  An Asian Institute for Policy Studies poll of 1,000 South Koreans conducted in February following the nuclear test found 63{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} felt insecure (although only 22{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of South Koreans support military action).

After deploying missile defense systems to Guam ahead of schedule, performing a military exercise using two stealth bombers, and expediting the delivery of ballistic-missile interceptors on the U.S. west coast, there have been clear indicators that the U.S. is actively addressing these threats.  But from a diplomatic perspective, the Administration must answer: are the recent North Korean actions a hollow threat designed to be used as a bargaining chip or is a naïve, unproven young leader attempting to misguidedly flex his militaristic muscle?


The two-year conflict in Syria is not a top of mind issue for most Americans.  According to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll from April, 60{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans admit they do not follow the news about the ongoing violence in Syria too closely.  Only a mere 10{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans indicate they follow news coverage “very closely.”

However, after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently announced with “varying degrees of confidence” that Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against its own people, and that the level of U.S. involvement would need to be re-evaluated.  If Assad did in fact use chemical weapons, this action would violate President Obama’s stated warning that any use of chemical weapons would elicit a military response from the U.S.

Despite this “red line” warning from Obama, any attempt to send arms or military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria would be met with significant opposition from many in the U.S. and its Western Allies.  According to a Pew Research Center Poll from March, 64{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans oppose sending arms into the country, while only 25{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} support such an action.   Our European allies share equal opposition to the U.S. or their own countries sending in arms as Britain (57{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} oppose), Turkey (65{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), France (69{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), and Germany (82{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) all express opposition.  Of Arab nations bordering Syria, only Jordan (65{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} support) expresses support for arms being funneled to anti-government groups.

Mainly, however, the U.S. appears to view the situation in Syria as an internal conflict, as 62{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans say the U.S. does not have a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria (CBS News/New York Times Poll).  Moving forward, the Obama administration will need to evaluate the commitment of the “red line” warning to Assad against the backdrop of significant opposition to further U.S. involvement.

We are undoubtedly faced with substantial questions in these conflict areas.  In North Korea, how far is a leader like Kim Jong Un willing to go if continued provocations do not elicit a response to his satisfaction?  In Syria, what measures are on the table if Syria continues use of chemical weapons on its own people?  These areas of unrest are rife with uncertainty and require the Administration to navigate these tumultuous diplomatic waters with the nuanced precision of a neurosurgeon.   The unpredictable nature and motivation of leaders in these areas creates a difficult course for President Obama.  He will need to lean on the foreign policy accomplishments of his first term to face this new set of challenges and reassure the general public that his Administration has a steady hand and firm control of rapidly evolving, highly sensitive problems that affect the US and global stability.

Public Opinion Strategies