August 18, 2004

Foreign Policy Attitudes Now Driven by 9/11 and Iraq

Part Five: Opinion About the Bush Administration’s Stewardship

President Bush still receives fairly strong marks for his handling of terrorism, particularly when compared with his low ratings on other key components of foreign policy. In the July 8-18 survey, conducted prior to the Democratic convention and the government’s announcement of elevated terrorism alert, a 54% majority approve of Bush’s performance in handling terrorist threats. This rose slightly to 58% in the August 5-10 survey, conducted after the government’s Code Orange announcement.

But Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq, and his foreign policy in general, continue to receive more negative reactions from the public. Just 42% approve of Bush’s overall handling of foreign policy and roughly the same number (43%) approve of the way he is handling the war in Iraq. Bush’s ratings on Iraq, like his measures on terrorism, have been fairly consistent over the past few months. And when it comes to how the president has handled international trade issues, just one-in-three approve, with 45% disapproving and a relatively high number (22%) declining to offer an opinion.

Bush Seen as Quick to Use Force

Overall, about six-in-ten Americans (59%) say the president is too quick to use military force, while only a third believe he tried hard enough to reach diplomatic solutions. That is consistent with measures taken in the fall of 2002 and in January 2003. But in April 2003, during the major combat phase of the war on Iraq, a majority (58%) felt he worked hard enough to reach diplomatic outcomes.

There is a vast partisan divide on this question: Democrats, by more than eight-to-one (84%-10%), say Bush is too quick to resort to force, while Republicans by a somewhat less sizable margin (70%-24%) believe the president works hard to find diplomatic solutions. Two-thirds of independents (66%) say the president is too quick to use force.

The public takes a more balanced view of Bush’s handling of the allies, with 38% saying he takes allied interests into account the right amount, and 37% saying he gives them too little consideration. However, the number who believe Bush gives short shrift to allied concerns has grown, from 30% in January to 37% currently. Half of Democrats, and nearly as many independents (45%), believe the president gives too little consideration to the concerns of the allies. Republicans, by five- to-one (70%-14%), say he gives appropriate attention to allied interests.

Swing Voters’ Priorities

With foreign policy and defense issues at the forefront of the presidential campaign this year, swing voters’ views on a range of these issues take on added importance. On eight of the 11 foreign policy issues in the poll on which there are significant partisan gaps, opinions of swing voters are closer to those of Kerry supporters than to those of Bush voters.

On several issues, the differences between swing voters and committed Bush voters is substantial. More than half of swing voters (53%) regard strengthening the United Nations as a top priority compared with 35% of Bush voters who have this view. And about twice as many swing voters as Bush supporters view global warming as a major concern (35% vs. 18%).

On two major foreign policy issues ­ preventing terrorist attacks and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction ­ swing voters fall between Bush and Kerry supporters. This also is the case on promoting U.S. economic interest abroad.