This week, Republicans Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie and Democrats Stan Greenberg and Jeremy Rosner wrote dueling articles on ForeignPolicy.com about Obama’s national security record, with the Republican team suggesting that the president is vulnerable and the Democratic team suggesting that foreign policy will be a plus for the president in November.
Our take is that it all depends on how the issue is framed and what’s going on in the world. Polls show that President Obama gets better marks on handling foreign policy than on domestic policy. But still, his ratings aren’t that strong. In the latest poll, for example, 46 percent approve and 46 percent disapprove (Quinnipiac).
In the February AP/GfK Roper poll, 48 percent trusted Republicans to do a better job on protecting the country while 40 percent trusted the Democrats. In the December 2011 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Republicans had a 3-point advantage on handling Afghanistan (26 to 23 percent) and a 13-point advantage on handling terrorism.
President Obama receives high marks for his planned troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. In a February Pew poll, a majority (53 percent) thought that Obama was handling removing troops from Afghanistan “about right.” Twenty-two percent thought he wasn’t withdrawing troops quickly enough. While Iraq receives scant news coverage, Obama receives positive marks for handling the situation there in all recent major polls.
At the same time, many of Obama’s foreign policy actions remain unpopular. A plurality of 49 percent told CBS News pollsters in November 2011 that the United States did not do the right thing by taking part in Libya. Thirty-seven percent thought the United States did the right thing. Only 33 percent approve of the way Obama is handling the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, in a January ABC/Washington Post poll.
Obama must also confront the growing concern over American decline. Sixty-four percent told Gallup in February that they are dissatisfied with America’s position in the world. A majority believe China is the world’s leading economic power. Only 10 percent felt that way about China in 2000.
Americans still see Republicans as stronger on foreign affairs than Democrats, but absent new events, President Obama may have addressed a familiar weakness of Democratic presidential candidates. At this very early stage of the campaign, polls suggest Obama has at least diffused a potential weakness. But it is still very early in the election cycle, and in today’s volatile geopolitical environment any number of potential events could make Americans reconsider their current thinking about the president.