December 3, 2009

U.S. Seen as Less Important, China as More Powerful

Section 5: Obama’s Handling of Foreign Policy

The public expresses mixed views of Barack Obama’s foreign policy performance so far. More approve than disapprove of his handling of terrorist threats and global climate change, but the balance of public opinion is negative when it comes to his handling of immigration policy, Afghanistan, Iraq and his decision to close the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay. The public is divided evenly in its assessments of how Obama has dealt with Iran and China, as well as his handling of international trade issues.

Members of the Council on Foreign Relations offer far more positive assessments of Obama’s foreign policy in almost all areas. More than eight-in-ten CFR members approve of his handling of Iraq (83%), and Guantanamo Bay (81%), and nearly as many rate his handling of China (79%), Iran (76%) and terrorism (77%) positively.

Just shy of three-quarters (73%) approve of how Obama has handled the issue of global climate change. On a separate question, 58% say they think Obama will get the U.S. to take significant measures to reduce carbon emissions, while 37% say they think he will not.

Eight-in-ten Council members (80%) approve of Obama’s decision to change U.S. policy on missile defense in Eastern Europe, and about six-in-ten approve of his handling of U.S. policy regarding Pakistan (66%) and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (59%).

But Council members do not universally praise all aspects of Obama’s foreign policy. In particular, just 42% approve of how Obama has handled Afghanistan so far, while 47% disapprove. On this issue, there is little difference between the ratings offered by foreign policy opinion leaders and the general public. Council members’ views of Obama’s handling of international trade are also somewhat divided (49% approve, 40% disapprove).

Not surprisingly, opinion among the general public about Obama’s performance is divided along partisan lines. But the size of the party gap varies by issue. The 48-point difference over Obama’s handling of terrorism is almost as large as the partisan divide in views of his overall job performance. And while 39% of Americans approve of Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo Bay, the majority of Democrats (59%) approve of this policy, compared with just 18% of Republicans – a 41-point party gap.

The percentage of Americans who approve of Obama’s handling of the situation in Iraq is comparable (41%), though the partisan divide is considerably narrower (22 points). More than half of Democrats (54%) and 32% of Republicans offer positive ratings.

Among Democrats, approval of Obama’s handling of both Iraq and Afghanistan stands at 54%. But Republicans’ views of his handling of Afghanistan are far more negative than their assessments of his handling of Iraq (19% vs. 32%).

On several issues, the ratings offered by independents are substantially closer to the views of Republicans than the views of Democrats. For example, just 36% of independents approve of Obama’s handling of Iraq, nearly as low as the 32% of Republicans who approve on that issue. And only 44% of independents approve of how Obama is handling the threat of terrorism, far closer to the 29% of Republicans than the 77% of Democrats who say the same.

Best and Worst of Obama’s Foreign Policy

When asked to name the best things about Obama’s handling of foreign policy, Council on Foreign Relations members overwhelmingly cite the administration’s emphasis on engagement and diplomacy. More than four-in-ten (44%) specifically mention multilateralism, an emphasis on diplomacy or the administration’s outreach and engagement efforts. In a similar vein, 9% also refer to Obama’s approach to the Muslim world and his June speech in Cairo, Egypt. Nearly one-in-five CFR members (18%) mention the improved U.S. image and greater international respect or credibility relative to the previous administration. And about one-in-ten (11%) volunteer Obama’s realistic, flexible and non-ideological approach to foreign affairs as one of the best things about his administration’s handling of foreign policy.

When asked to name the worst things about Obama’s handling of foreign policy, Afghanistan and Pakistan policy is mentioned by about a quarter (27%) of Council members. Some also cite the way the administration has handled the Israeli-Palestinian situation (13%), and one-in-ten (10%) cite a pattern of indecisiveness or criticize the administration for too much talk and not enough tough decision-making.

Assertiveness vs. Engagement

When asked specifically about the balance of Obama’s foreign policy, roughly a third (31%) of Council members say the administration is not assertive enough, while two-thirds (67%) say its approach to foreign policy is about right and only 1% say Obama is too assertive.

Instead, most Council members are optimistic that “Obama’s policy of greater engagement with problem countries will advance U.S. interests” either a lot (29%) or some (54%). Just 16% say this approach to problem nations will not be effective.

As with his overall approval ratings, there is broader criticism of Obama’s approach to foreign policy among the general public. Nearly half of Americans (47%) say they think Obama is “not tough enough” in his approach to foreign policy and national security issues, though nearly as many (43%) say his approach is about right. The share saying Obama’s approach is not tough enough has risen nine-points from 38% in June. Currently, 72% of Republicans say Obama’s approach to foreign and national security issues is not tough enough, as do 47% of independents. Just 29% of Democrats say the same, though this is up from 19% in June.

Middle East Conflict

There is a broad belief among Council on Foreign Relations members that U.S. policies toward Israel and the Palestinians have been out of balance, and that Obama is bringing things into alignment. Two-thirds (67%) of Council members say that, historically, U.S. policies have favored Israel too much; just 24% believe America’s policies have been balanced. But most Council members (69%) say Obama is now striking the right balance. Just a quarter see him favoring one side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with comparable percentages saying Obama favors the Palestinians too much (12%) and Israel too much (13%).

The public does not have as clear an impression of U.S. policies in this area – roughly a quarter are unable to offer an assessment of U.S. policies either historically (27%) or currently (26%). Among those who do, 30% think that past U.S. policy has favored Israel too much, 15% say the United States has favored the Palestinians too much and 29% say past policy has struck the right balance.

When it comes to Obama, 51% of Americans say he is striking the right balance, with 16% saying he favors the Palestinians too much. The impression that Obama’s policies are biased toward the Palestinians is more widespread among Republicans, 30% say this is the case compared with 18% of independents and just 6% of Democrats. Yet about as many Republicans (34%) say Obama is striking the right balance, as do 56% of independents and 64% of Democrats.