Rosner & Bennett: Public Backs Obama as a Wartime President

March 18th, 2010

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This piece was originally published in Roll Call.

Even with Washington, D.C., consumed by fights over health care and jobs, President Barack Obama is still having to wage two real wars and the battle against an ongoing terrorist threat. A new poll says the public mostly approves how he is handling the security front.

The survey, conducted by Democracy Corps and Third Way in late February, showed job approval levels of well over 50 percent among likely voters on Obama’s handling of Afghanistan (58 percent), Iraq (54 percent) and terrorism (54 percent), as well as questions such as leadership of the nation’s military (57 percent), national security (57 percent) and improving America’s standing in the world (55 percent). All these are even higher than his overall job approval, which stands at a still-respectable 47 percent.

These are strong figures given the range of global challenges facing the president — and the attacks from the right against his handling of security issues. The shrillest of those critics, such as Dick and Liz Cheney, insist President Obama has made America “less safe” than it was under George W. Bush. The American public disagrees. Even with voters leaning slightly toward the GOP overall, more voters say Obama has done a better job than Bush on both national security (38 percent to 33 percent) and on terrorism (37 percent to 33 percent).

Last May, when we looked at these issues in depth, national security approval levels for the president were mostly in the 60s rather than the 50s. But the shift on these issues parallels the shift on his overall approval over the same period, so the drop reflects concerns about the economy and the overall political landscape more than specific concerns over security.

Republicans know no shame in trying to trash their opponents as weak on defense. This is the party that impugned the patriotism of then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who left three limbs in Vietnam. So they have tried to argue that the decline in Obama’s national security numbers means the public has turned against his handling of foreign affairs.

But the numbers tell no such story. Not only do voters believe Obama is doing better than his predecessor on these issues, they also prefer by 10 points a multilateral approach to security challenges instead of the kind of unilateralism Bush offered.

To be sure, there are signs Republican attacks in some areas have had an impact. By a narrow 46 percent to 42 percent plurality, the public says the administration’s handling of the Christmas Day terrorist bombing attempt against a Detroit-bound airliner leaves them feeling less rather than more confident about their national security policies.

There are also indications that economic anxieties are having an impact on public attitudes toward world affairs. By 51 percent to 41 percent, more voters say America is less respected in the world than two years ago. But a regression analysis shows this is driven more by feelings about the economy than national security — and by a lopsided 64 percent to 32 percent, Americans say the U.S. is losing its global leadership to countries such as China and no longer “remains the world’s strongest and most influential country.” These figures will likely improve as the economy recovers. And it is notable that Republicans are now most likely to say America is no longer the world’s leading country — 74 percent of them feel this way — which suggests the GOP may be in danger of becoming America’s New Declinists.

The biggest warning sign for the president in the new findings has to do with perceptions of his party. In May 2009, the Democratic Party had essentially eliminated its decades-old gap on public trust on national security — a deficit with roots that stretch back to Vietnam. Now likely voters once again say Republicans would do a better job on national security, by 17 points. The possible reopening of this gap should be a real wake-up call for the party — a reminder to Democrats inside and outside Congress that they need to press their case on national security — even at a time when jobs and health care are center stage.

But the new poll also shows this is a debate Democrats should want: A robust 69 percent majority of voters feel more confident about Democrats on national security when they hear a message about the Obama administration’s toughness and results in combating terrorism — how they have taken the fight to the terrorists, “using our Special Forces and Predator planes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen [to capture or kill] hundreds of al Qaeda’s fighters and affiliates in 2009, far more than in 2008,” including the capture of the Taliban’s top military commander. That is 9 points stronger than the best message we test for the Republicans on terrorism or other aspects of national security.

In national security, even more than in other areas, public opinion rises with sound policy and tangible results. Polls can’t guide America’s foreign policy. But they can guide communications on national security, and this poll indicates that Democrats must lean into their arguments. They need to devote more time and words to these issues. They should continue the effort that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) started in 2006 to recruit more Iraq and Afghanistan vets, and others with standing on these issues, as candidates. As Obama is showing, there is a real opening for Democrats — even at a time of high domestic concerns and intense political polarization — to mobilize majority support behind a new approach to national security that is tough, smart and progressive.

Jeremy Rosner is executive vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic polling firm, and served on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. Matt Bennett is vice president and co-founder of Third Way.