Behind the Numbers

The OBL Blowback

Is Obama's chest thumping a turnoff?

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

Republicans are crying foul over a new campaign ad from President Barack Obama taking credit for dispatching Osama bin Laden one year ago -- and for marking the occasion with a stealthy journey to Afghanistan yesterday to mark the occasion. George W. Bush, of course, was the subject of similar criticism (though from Democrats) after his 2004 campaign ads featured flashbacks to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At that time, most Americans thought such tactics were inappropriate. But just like the latest round of commentary, it all depends on who's the hero.

The new web ad released Friday actually begins with a direct reference to Obama's predecessor. "That's one thing that Bush said was right, 'the president is the decider in chief,'" says former President Bill Clinton, assessing later in the video that Obama made a difficult decision in authorizing the bin Laden raid -- "the harder and the more honorable path."

The ad then ominously asks "Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?" followed by references to Romney's 2007 and 2008 attacks on Obama for being too willing to invade Pakistan and focusing too much on Osama bin Laden.

Polls have yet to gauge whether Americans think the ad is below the belt, but Bush's experience eight years ago provides some clues.

In spring 2004, Bush's campaign unveiled ads showing glimpses of a destroyed World Trade Center tower and firemen carrying a flag-draped casket on September 11, highlighting the day as one of the great challenges facing the nation. The videos didn't mention John Kerry explicitly, but the message was clear: President Bush, steady leadership in times of change.

Blowback was immediate from some, including the International Association of Fire Fighters, who had already endorsed Sen. John Kerry. Bush's campaign stood by the ads, and strategist Karen Hughes said "I believe the vast majority of the American people will as well."

Suffice to say, she was wrong. In a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll immediately after the ad's release, two thirds of Americans (66 percent) said it was inappropriate for political candidates to run campaign ads using images from September 11, while only 30 percent thought this was appropriate. Support was 12 points higher when Bush was named in the survey question. (The poll randomly assigned half of respondents to have Bush explicitly named in the question, a clever pollster technique designed to measure the impact of question wording).

In this case, the rules of campaign etiquette were highly tinted by partisanship. Nearly nine in 10 Democrats -- who overwhelmingly disapproved of Bush at the time -- thought using 9/11 imagery was inappropriate. But just four in 10 Republicans thought the tactic was out of bounds. Independents split the difference, saying by a 67 to 27 percent margin that the images were inappropriate.

Despite the controversy, it's not clear whether Bush paid any political price for the apparent overstep. He won re-election in the fall, and national security proved a potent line of attack against Kerry later in the campaign. Bush held a 17-point advantage over Kerry on who was trusted more to handle the campaign against terrorism in a Washington Post-ABC News poll in September 2004.

The same may be true of Obama, who holds some of his strongest job performance ratings on handling terrorism. Whether voters see his bin Laden boasts as tasteless may chiefly reflect how they rate Obama in the first place, not the other way around.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

Behind the Numbers

The New, New World Order

Do Americans still hate the United Nations?

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

The United Nations has never been America's most popular institution, and it has received it's worst ratings on record in the past decade. It's derided as giving a platform to two-bit dictators and for being a useless, inefficient bureaucracy -- see John Bolton's famous quote ("The secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost 10 stories today, it wouldn't make a bit of difference"). To make matters worse, the United Nations is often tasked with solving the world's most intractable problems -- from ending poverty to stopping wars.

Today, the United Nations is grappling with the daunting task of winding down the ongoing violence in Syria. In addition to ending a human rights catastrophe, a successful mission could repair the U.N.'s precarious standing among the U.S. public, which took a major downturn in the run up to the Iraq war and has yet to recover since.

Nearly six in 10 Americans in February 2002 -- 58 percent -- said the United Nations was doing a good job, tying a record high in Gallup polls since 1953. But just over a year later, a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found the opposite result -- 58 percent said the U.N. was doing a poor job. Ratings of the U.N. failed to bounce back, bottoming out at 26 percent in 2009 even though Americans had soured on the Iraq war.

The falloff is meticulously catalogued in an article (paywalled) in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly by Gregory Holyk, now a research analyst with Langer Research Associates. (Disclosure: Langer Research manages the ABC side of the Washington Post/ABC News poll.)

As Holyk notes, thoughAmericans have given the U.N. overwhelmingly negative assessments on its achievements since the run-up to the Iraq war, there's much higher support for its goals and even for giving it more authority.

Nearly six in 10 agreed that the United States should cooperate with the U.N. in a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, up slightly from 2009 and the majority sentiment for more than three decades. More than seven in 10 supported the idea of a standing U.N. peacekeeping force "selected, trained, and commanded by the United Nations" in a 2006 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Knowledge Networks.

Curiously, lower job approval ratings for the U.N. in the mid-2000s were accompanied with a desire for a more hands-off role for the United States in international conflicts. Nearly six in 10 Americans said that other countries and the United Nations should take the lead over America in solving international crises and conflicts, according to a 2006 CBS News/New York Times poll. In September 2002, as George W. Bush pressed the U.N. for a stronger stance against Iraq, the public split about evenly on whether the United States should or shouldn't take the lead in foreign conflicts.

The desire to play second fiddle was on display in 2006, when upwards of seven in 10 Americans wanted the United Nations to take the lead in dealing with Iran's nuclear program; only roughly two in 10 wanted the United States to take charge, according to Pew polls.

One possible reason for this sentiment is the generally low priority Americans place on human rights issues, at least in comparison to other national and international problems. Fewer than one in four said protecting human rights abroad was a top foreign policy priority for the United States in a 2011 Pew poll -- far behind protecting jobs for U.S. workers, terrorism, reducing energy imports, and cutting down on military commitments. And a 2011 CBS News poll found a split verdict (39 percent on each side) on whether the United States should use military force to stop governments who are attacking their own citizens.

Americans' reluctance to go to war over human rights abuses leaves an opening for the United Nations to take on the task. Job ratings aside, American support for the U.N.'s role is not in question.

Mario Tama/Getty Images