Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared that Russian troops could take Kiev in two weeks. The bloodthirsty militants of ISIS have beheaded another American journalist and control territory from Syria to the gates of Baghdad. And although the upcoming midterm elections may appear to be focused on domestic policy concerns like health care and the economy, the growing anxiety over President Obama’s handling of global events seems to be weighing down his job approval rating—and, by extension, Democratic chances in the fall.
Between the bad optics of ill-timed golf rounds and a too-candid admission that we “don’t have a strategy yet” to deal with ISIS in Syria, Obama’s underwhelming leadership on international affairs has attracted a lot of criticism in recent weeks. And while he says he’ll lay out more details of his plan to deal with global threats on Wednesday, voters are growing less and less convinced that Obama is up to the task of leading us through uncertain times in a dangerous world.
Obama’s second term has been largely characterized by gridlock and disappointment on the domestic policy front. Still, voters don’t hold him entirely responsible for this fact—Congress averages a job approval rating that’s barely above 10 percent, and Republicans shoulder more blame for last year’s government shutdown than do Obama and the Democrats. And while voters have long been unimpressed with the president’s handling of issues like the economy and health care, they seem no more upset with him over these things than they were in his first term. His health care law is roughly as unpopular today as it was in September 2010, and his 40 percent approval rating on the health care issue is essentially unchanged from where it was four years ago (PDF).
The key difference between 2010 and today is that, back then, about half of Americans still approved of the job Obama was doing overall (PDF). That’s because, despite whatever qualms they had about Obamacare and a lackluster recovery, four years ago many voters still thought Obama was dealing with the rest of the world in the right way and keeping us safe, and gave him credit for that.
Now Obama’s overall job approval sags in the low 40s. Disapproval is regularly 10 or more points higher than approval, and a likely reason for this is plunge in popularity among voters is the president’s foreign policy. What was once the bright spot in the president’s otherwise lackluster polling numbers is now the anchor pulling him down. In fact, a recent poll shows only 31 percent of American voters saying they approve of the job the president is doing on foreign policy, a number that lags behind his overall approval rating—and his approval rating on the economy and health care, his two primary weak spots throughout his presidency.
It would appear foreign policy is not going to be the deciding issue in the 2014 midterms. Fewer than 4 out of 10 voters say that foreign policy is a “very important” issue in determining how they vote this year (PDF). And of course international relations and national security fall much more squarely in the executive branch, making congressional and statewide elections a poor venue for hashing out debates about the right approach to taking on ISIS or Vladimir Putin.
But if Americans are increasingly upset with how the president is handling foreign policy, and it continues to weigh down his overall job approval, it not only makes him a less effective advocate on the campaign trail—it makes voters less likely to want to vote to give him a friendlier Congress. The argument that voters ought to get rid of the Republicans so that Obama can have his way is a lot more potent when Obama is at 50 percent job approval than when he’s below 40. A president with job approval in the low 40s is a much less appealing campaign trail sidekick than one who is in the 50s.
What Obama’s response ought to be to the likes to Putin or ISIS isn’t something that can be divined from polling, nor should it be. It’s not clear exactly what actions he could take that would improve his foreign policy job approval rating and, in turn, his overall job approval, though fewer rounds of golf might be a start.
Voters simultaneously express war-weariness and growing concern about the spectre of radical Islam that is haunting the Middle East. They think it’s good that we got out of Iraq, but don’t think we should just keep to ourselves while ISIS expands its reach. Moreover, they aren’t sure how we should deal with a bellicose Russian government that is advancing westward and backs rebel groups that shot down a civilian passenger aircraft, or how to stop a savage group of rapists and murderers that are trying to establish a caliphate, or how to handle a brutal dictator who has used chemical weapons on civilians. But they do know that a president saying “We don’t have a strategy” isn’t comforting, and doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
Despite global unrest, the 2014 election may not be a “foreign policy election” in the strictest sense. But deepening fear about growing bad news abroad is diminishing Americans’ views of the president at home, and that’s bad news for Democrats this November.