Downward-Facing Obama

When the national mood goes south, even the president’s foreign policy successes get negative marks.

Fresh from signing an interim nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration must now sell the agreement to Congress and the American people. Notwithstanding the merits and demerits of the Iranian accord, that task could prove particularly difficult because of the public's sour assessment of President Barack Obama's handling of a range of foreign policy challenges.

The Affordable Care Act online fiasco notwithstanding, Obama's overall job approval rating has fallen over the past year -- including his handling of foreign policy. His job rating is now below 40 percent for nine of 10 foreign policy issues tested in a new public opinion survey, "America's Place in the World," by the Pew Research Center. A companion poll of members of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan membership organization and think tank specializing in U.S. foreign policy, was similarly critical of Obama's overall foreign policy track record, but more supportive of his handling of individual challenges.

Foreign policy, once a relative strength for the president, has become a target of substantial criticism. By a 56 percent to 34 percent margin, more Americans disapprove than approve of his handling of foreign policy. This opprobrium is sharply partisan: 82 percent of Republicans disapprove of the president's management of international issues, as do 93 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who agree with the Tea Party. Only 24 percent of Democrats disapprove. In fact, of the 10 foreign policy issues tested, roughly half or more of the Democrats surveyed approve of the Obama's handling of each problem, while a third or less of Republicans approved.

The survey, which was conducted in early November before the recent interim accord with Iran, found just 37 percent of the public approve of Obama's dealings with Iran. And with just 17 percent of Republicans approving of the White House's relations with Tehran, the sales job on the Iranian nuclear agreement could prove particularly difficult.

Just across the border, things aren't much better. Only 30 percent of the public gives the president a thumbs up for his management of the situation in Syria, even though an earlier Pew Research Center survey found that two-thirds of the public supported his September decision to delay airstrikes against Damascus.

And even where boots are on the ground, Obama can't buy a win. As tensions mount with Kabul over the timeline for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the conditions under which Washington would keep a residual military force in the country, Americans show little faith in Obama's handling of the situation in Afghanistan. Just 34 percent think he is doing a good job.

There's a similar sense that the president is mismanaging the ongoing strategic competition with China. More than half (54 percent) of Americans see China's emergence as a world power as a major threat to the United States. But only 30 percent approve of Obama's dealings with Beijing.

The one bright spot on the president's foreign policy report card is the grade he receives for his containment of terrorism. Roughly half (51 percent) the public approves of Obama's handling of that critical issue. But even then the president gets credit from only 33 percent of Republicans, while he is praised by 75 percent of Democrats. Part of this support may be due to the American public's continued backing for the use of military drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Half say it has made the United States safer. A minority (27 percent) say drone actions have made the country less safe.

Like the public, foreign policy experts are critical of Obama's overall foreign policy track record. But they are more supportive of his handling of individual international challenges. Of the members of the Council on Foreign Relations, 44 percent say Obama's management of foreign policy has been worse than they expected, while just 16 percent say it has surpassed their expectations. Two-in-five say Obama has done about as well as they expected. Roughly half of Council members (52 percent) say the Obama administration's approach to foreign policy is not assertive enough, up from just 31 percent four years ago.

Moreover, just 38 percent of Council members approve of Obama's handling of Syria, while 59 percent disapprove. These are by far the president's lowest ratings by foreign policy experts on 10 foreign policy issues tested. And about seven in ten Council members (72 percent) say the reputation of the United States has been weakened by the way it has handled the situation in Syria.

Nevertheless, Obama gets positive job ratings from Council members for his handling of several issues, including terrorism (73 percent), Iran (72 percent) and China (69 percent). And a higher percentage of Council members approve of Obama's handling of Afghanistan than did so four years ago (56 percent now, 42 percent then).

That said, it's unlikely the president takes that much comfort from the lukewarm support of America's elite. Foreign policy, once a relative strength for President Obama, now looks like a weakness. Such public doubts may complicate administration efforts to win congressional backing for the interim nuclear accord with Iran. And it may complicate White House efforts in pursuit of an end to the Syrian civil war and future dealings with China.

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The Pulse

Americans and Israelis Don't See Eye to Eye on Iran

When it comes to the nuclear threat from Tehran, there’s a growing gulf between Washington and Jerusalem.

As negotiators convene in Geneva in an effort to reach agreement on curbing Iran's nuclear program, the American people are supportive of a deal, even though they are fairly cynical about the likelihood of it working. And their support may put them at odds with the Israelis, their long-time regional allies, portending possible further disagreements between Jerusalem and Washington in the months ahead.

Moreover, Americans are divided along partisan lines on the way forward with Iran. Younger Americans are even more likely to differ with Israelis about Iran, suggesting disagreements over Tehran's nuclear program may be with us for some time to come.

Americans back an interim accord with Tehran that would impede the Iranian nuclear program and set the stage for a final deal that may even roll back that program. A strong majority (64 percent) say the United States and other countries should lift some of their economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Tehran restricting its nuclear program in a way that makes it harder for it to produce nuclear weapons, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News survey. But roughly six in ten Americans (61 percent) also have little or no confidence that such an agreement would actually prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the nature of partisanship today, Republicans and Democrats are split over a prospective Iranian deal: 72 percent of Democrats support such an accord, while only 57 percent of Republicans agree. And 70 percent of Republicans compared with 50 percent of Democrats lack confidence that this agreement would keep Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, the prospect of a deal in Geneva has generated new friction between Israel and the United States. The Obama administration wants to prevent the Iranians from ever obtaining nuclear weapons. The Israeli government wants to prevent Iran from ever having the ability to build such weapons. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pressing Washington not to finalize the deal now on the table in Geneva.

American-Israeli differences at an official level in part mirror disagreement between their respective publics. Three-quarters of Israelis have a very unfavorable view of Iran, while only 42 percent of Americans share such strong negative sentiments, according to a Pew Research Center survey in spring 2013. The next generation of Americans, those currently between the ages of 18 and 29, are even less likely to see Tehran in a negative light. Just 25 percent have a very unfavorable opinion of Iran. (And that's before the election of President Hassan Rouhani and his public softening to the West.)

There's also a critical difference between the United States and Jerusalem when it comes to the immediacy of the nuclear threat from Tehran. While 85 percent of Israelis say that Iran's nuclear program poses a major threat to Israel, only 54 percent of Americans worry that Tehran's nuclear activities pose a major threat to the United States, including only 42 percent of the younger generation of Americans.

Nevertheless, Americans (93 percent) and Israelis (96 percent) do agree that Iran should not acquire nuclear weapons. And, of the vast majority of both populations that oppose Tehran's nuclear ambitions, 68 percent of Israelis and 64 percent of Americans would support the use of military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

An Iran agreement eluded negotiators in Geneva in early November, and there is no assurance an interim accord can be concluded in the round of talks going on now. But if a deal is struck, the American public appears willing to back it, even if they aren't so sure an effective permanent deal is in the offing. Americans differences with Israelis, however, suggest that discord between Jerusalem and Washington over Iran may persist.