Obama’s Foreign Policy Impacts 2014 Elections — Really

by Stuart Rothenberg April 24, 2014 · 9:52 AM EDT

No, I am not going to try to make the case that foreign policy will be at the forefront of this year’s elections, or that international issues are a high priority for most Americans. They aren’t.

But foreign policy could have an indirect yet significant impact on the midterm elections, making the issue more relevant than you otherwise might assume.

The growing perception that President Barack Obama over-promised and has under-delivered on international issues could add to the already hardening perception that his presidency has not been an unadulterated success. And that’s not good for vulnerable Democrats as the elections approach.

For most partisan Democrats, the suggestion that the president has failed on foreign policy is simply mistaken. They will note that he ended two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, has taken steps to address the nuclear threat from Iran, and has tried to mobilize international opinion, and action, against military force used by Syria and Russia.

But even some Democrats have been critical of President Obama’s approach.

“…It’s been a mixed record,” said former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to the New York Times, “and the concern is, the president defining what America’s role in the world is in the 21st century hasn’t happened.”

Whatever you think about the Affordable Care Act, the president’s performance on jobs and the administration’s efforts to raise the minimum wage, extend unemployment insurance and enact “equal pay” legislation, the White House’s approach to foreign policy — most recently on Syria, Ukraine, Russia and Middle East peace — has too often seemed naïve.

In April of 2007, during his race for the White House against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama told an audience at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “The disappointment that so many around the world feel toward America right now is only a testament to the high expectations they hold for us. We must meet those expectations again, not because being respected is an end in itself, but because the security of America and the wider world demands it.”

Almost two years after that Chicago speech and a little more than two months into his presidency, Americans did believe that the new president had improved the United States’ image abroad. But those numbers have slipped noticeably since then.

In February of 2009, according to the Gallup Poll, more than two out of three Americans surveyed (67 percent) said that “leaders of other countries around the world have respect for Barack Obama.” One year later, only 56 perfect answered the same way, and a year after that a bare majority, 51 percent, said that the president was respected by other countries’ leaders.

That figure remained virtually unchanged in polling conducted in early 2012 and 2013, but this year, Gallup found only 41 percent of Americans believing that Obama was respected by leaders of other countries, while 53 percent said that those leaders “don’t have much respect” for Obama.

“Democrats and independents are mainly responsible for the slide in Obama’s ratings,” concluded Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones in a Feb. 24 post on the company’s website.

Obama’s poll numbers are still better than George W. Bush’s throughout most of his presidency, and Gallup found that even now, a narrow majority of Americans believe the United States rates favorably “in the eyes of the world.”

But the president’s declining job performance numbers on foreign policy in NBC News/Wall Street Journal surveys over the past few years is impossible to ignore. (See question No. 6 in the March 5-9 survey, here. It includes historical data.)

In May 2011, Obama’s net job approval as president was +11, while his job approval on handling the economy was a -21. But on his handling of foreign policy, the president’s job performance was a stunning +22 (57 percent approve/35 percent disapprove).

One year later, Obama’s net job approval was +2, while his job approval on his handling of the economy was -9. Once again, his job rating on foreign policy was measurably higher than both, with a net of +9 (51 percent approve/42 percent disapprove).

The same trend held in December of 2012 and April of 2013 NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls, though the differences in Obama’s net job approval on his overall performance, the economy and foreign policy were narrowing.

This March, the president’s performance in all three areas was almost identical. In fact, an identical 41 percent of respondents approved of his performance in his overall job, his handling of the economy and his handling of foreign policy.

Obama’s net approval as president was -13, while his net approval in handling the economy was -15 and his handling of foreign policy was -12 (41 percent approve/53 percent disapprove).

Are voters increasingly unhappy with the president’s foreign policy actions, or is the public’s general dissatisfaction with Obama’s performance poisoning their view of his foreign policy performance?

It doesn’t really matter.

Public dissatisfaction with the president’s handling of foreign policy is another problem for Democrats who need to generate a strong base turnout and also convince swing voters that the president and his party deserve their support in November.

The less happy voters (particularly Democrats and Independents) are about the Obama presidency, the more difficult it will be for Democratic strategists to achieve the results they want in the midterm elections.