June 18, 2009

Obama’s Ratings Remain High Despite Some Policy Concerns

Health Care Views Similar to '93, But Fewer Favor Rebuilding System

Section 3: Foreign Policy and National Security

In the aftermath of North Korea’s nuclear test in late May, an increasing proportion of Americans view North Korea’s nuclear program as a “major threat.” Currently, 72% say North Korea’s nuclear program is a major threat to the well-being of the United States, up from just 53% in January.

Somewhat more Americans (78%) view Islamic groups like al Qaeda as a major threat to the United States than say that about North Korea. However, concern over North Korea’s nuclear program is now on par with concern over Iran’s nuclear program (69% view this as a major threat). The current survey was largely completed before the outbreak of widespread public protests in Iran over the country’s June 12 presidential election.

As in the past, there are sizable gaps in how Republicans and Democrats view possible international threats to the United States. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to see most issues as major threats, with the biggest gaps over Iran’s nuclear program (15 points), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (14 points) and Islamic extremist groups (13 points).

Notably, the partisan differences are not as wide in views of North Korea’s nuclear program: 79% of Republicans, 73% of Democrats and 69% of independents say this poses a major threat to the United States. In January, 60% of Republicans and about half of Democrats (51%) and independents (53%) viewed North Korea’s nuclear program as a major threat.

Obama and Foreign Policy

A majority of the public approves of the way Obama is handling the nation’s foreign policy (57%); however, the percent who disapprove has grown from 22% in April to 31% in the current poll. There continue to be wide partisan differences in these assessments: 78% of Democrats approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy compared with only 37% of Republicans. More than half (53%) of independents approve, but this is down 10 points since April.

The public also generally approves of Obama’s handling of the situation with North Korea; 51% approve and 23% disapprove, while a relatively large share (26%) offers no opinion. Notably, about as many Republicans approve (36%) as disapprove (38%) of Obama’s handling of the North Korean situation.

Obama’s ratings are fairly similar to those George W. Bush received in January and February of 2003 and the public’s ratings of Bill Clinton in June of 1994. As with Obama’s overall rating on foreign policy, far fewer Republicans (36%) approve of his handling of North Korea than do independents (50%) and Democrats (64%).

Fewer Approve of Closing Guantanamo

The public is now evenly split over Obama’s plan to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay; 45% approve of closing Guantanamo within a year, while 46% disapprove. As recently as April, 51% approved and 38% disapproved of Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo.

While most Democrats (64%) approve of Obama’s decision to close the prison, support has fallen by 12 points since April. A majority of independents (51%) disapprove of Obama’s plan to close Guantanamo while just 40% approve. There has been little change in views of Republicans; in the current poll 29% approve and 63% disapprove.

Nonetheless, more than half (52%) of the pu
blic approves of transferring some of the prisoners to “federal maximum-security prisons in the U.S.” if the military prison at Guantanamo is closed, while 43% disapprove.

Other polls that asked whether prisoners should be transferred to prisons “in your community,” “in your state,” or to “prison facilities in the United States” – without explicitly mentioning that they would be placed in maximum security prisons – have found less support for this policy.

Fewer See Obama as “Not Tough Enough”

Most Americans (51%) say Obama is about right in his approach to foreign policy and national security issues, while 38% say he is not tough enough. Opinion has shifted somewhat since September 2008, when 44% of registered voters said he would be about right and 45% said he would not be tough enough. Throughout last year’s presidential campaign, voters were divided over whether they believed Obama would be not tough enough or about right in his approach to foreign policy.

As was the case last fall, the view that Obama is not tough enough on foreign policy is widely shared among Republicans. In fact, substantially more Republicans believe Obama is not tough enough in his approach to foreign policy and national security (67%) than disapprove of his handling of foreign policy (53%). By contrast, 39% of independents and just 19% of Democrats say Obama is not tough enough on foreign policy. As might be expected, an overwhelming majority (81%) of those who disapprove of Obama’s handling of foreign policy says he is not tough enough, while most of those who approve say he is about right (76%).

Obama’s Handling of Terrorism, Allies

While Obama’s terrorism policies have come under criticism from former vice president Dick Cheney and other leading Republicans, the public generally disagrees with Cheney’s contention that the country is less safe from terrorism under Obama’s administration than it was under the Bush administration.

Only about one-in-five (21%) believe Obama’s policies have made the country less safe from terrorism compared with the Bush administration; somewhat more (28%) say the country is safer now, while 44% say there has been no difference.

A plurality of Republicans (45%) say that Obama’s terrorism policies have made the country less safe, although nearly as many (37%) say there has been no change. More than four-in-ten Democrats (44%) say his administration’s policies have made the country safer when compared with Bush’s, though 45% say they have made no difference. And nearly half of independents (47%) say Obama’s policies have not made a difference, with the remainder split between those who say they have made the country safer (24%) and less safe (21%) from terrorism.

Following Obama’s first visit to Europe as president, a majority of Americans (57%) believe he is “striking the right balance” when it comes to dealings with U.S. allies. Just one-in-five (20%) say he is taking the interests of U.S. allies into account too much while 8% say he is pushing America’s interests too hard.

Republicans are evenly divided in opinions about Obama’s handling of relations with allies: 38% say he takes allies’ interests into account too much and 37% say he is striking the right balance. Nearly eight-in-ten Democrats (77%) and 56% of independents believe that Obama is striking the right balance when it comes to dealings with U.S. allies.

Obama and Israel

The public also positively views Obama’s approach to the Middle East: 62% say he is striking the right balance, while 17% say he favors the Palestinians too much and 6% believe he favors Israel too much.

While there are clear partisan differences in these opinions, Republicans are about as likely to say Obama is striking the right balance in the Middle East (43%) as say he favors the Palestinians too much (36%). Majorities of Democrats (78%) and independents (64%) say Obama is striking the right balance when it comes to the Middle East.

More white non-Hispanic evangelical Protestants (37%) than members of other religious groups say that Obama favors the Palestinians too much. However, nearly half of white evangelical Protestants (47%) believe that Obama strikes the right balance on the Middle East.

Cite this publication: “Obama’s Ratings Remain High Despite Some Policy Concerns.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (June 18, 2009) http://www.people-press.org/2009/06/18/obamas-ratings-remain-high-despite-some-policy-concerns/, accessed on July 23, 2014.