Obama and American Weakness Abroad
Why are less than half of Americans upset by increasing evidence that the United States is becoming a paper tiger? Recently, the U.S. government has not prevented bad things from happening in its international relations. Obama’s budgetary butchery on our military virtually guarantees that worse will come. His disastrous handling of the Ukraine crisis is the latest example of his ineptitude and weakness in foreign affairs.
It is not necessary to detail the sad litany of mistakes, failures, disasters and worse that have accompanied U.S. actions abroad (and since at least 2009, at home). They signify that America has become a rudderless superpower. Readers of American Thinker are familiar with the list.
Nor is there need for a lengthy citation of polls showing many Americans do not connect the country’s inability (or unwillingness) to project power abroad to the Obama administration’s failures.
One example suffices.
In a poll conducted by Fox News March 22-25, 2014, 52% of the respondents said the U.S. is weaker and less powerful than it was before Obama became president, but 17% said it is stronger and more powerful, and 29% claimed America’s strength has not changed. Roughly half (49%) said the country is safer than it was prior to 9/11, while about two-fifths (39%) believed it’s less safe. Nearly three-fifths of the public (59%) said the U.S. is the world’s dominant power, which is down from the 85% who said the same thing in 2002.
One would think that sentiments like these would lower Obama’s public standing, and there’s some evidence of that. Granted, two-thirds of the public (66%) told Fox News interviewers that Obama is not tough enough on Russia. But, 43% of those polled said Obama is “a strong and energetic leader,” and 40% said he is “a strong negotiator with foreign leaders.” Nearly two-fifths (37%) approved of the job Obama is doing on foreign policy, while “only” 53% disapproved.
(Recent polls show that Obama’s overall approval rating ranges between 40 and 50 percent.)
If the Fox News poll can be believed, and if its results capture public sentiments on these topics, one may naturally wonder what’s going on.
Two tacks will help solve this puzzle. First, we need to ascertain important information on American public opinion about U.S. foreign policy. Second, we have to explore why bad news about America’s foreign standing doesn’t wash back on President Obama.
Several features of public opinion about foreign affairs and foreign policy are pertinent to this analysis.
First, save for a few very momentous events such as Pearl Harbor or 9/11, or major figures such as Osama bin Laden or Vladimir Putin, most events and individuals abroad are remote and unrelated to Americans’ everyday concerns. When pollsters ask random samples of ordinary Americans “[w]hat is the most important problem facing this country today,” domestic matters such as “the economy/jobs” are typically mentioned most often, while foreign affairs are seldom listed. Olé Holsti, who writes about public opinion and foreign policy, reports that when the American economy is in depression (such as in the 1930s) or in a severe recession (such as in 2008-2009) foreign affairs are even less salient to the public than when the U.S. economy is healthy.
A June 6, 2012 report by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press illustrates this tendency. Preoccupied by continued reports of America’s sluggish economy (and perhaps even the impending presidential election), Americans had very little interest in foreign news.
A second facet of public opinion about foreign affairs/foreign policy stems from the first. Because they seldom think much about remote topics, most Americans are abysmally ignorant of world affairs. “Dark areas of ignorance” is a phrase that researchers have used on several occasions to characterize Americans’ information about the world beyond our borders. As Holsti notes, not even U.S. engagement in warfare does much to enhance Americans’ normal “innocence” of world events and personalities.
An excellent example of widespread ignorance even in the midst of war is a question asked by the National Opinion Research Center in late March, early April, 1943, just a couple months after the six-month Guadalcanal campaign, in which U.S. armed forces defeated the Japanese and seized the island. NORC asked, “[w]ho would you say owned Guadalcanal before the war?” Only 11% of the public correctly answered England. Nearly seven-tenths (69%) wouldn’t even hazard a guess.
The third feature of public opinion about foreign policy is probably a function of the first two. Much more than with domestic policy, the American public is inclined to leave the formulation and conduct of foreign policy to elites. Public policy researchers – whether domestic or foreign – assert that a successful course of policy requires close attention to, and especially detailed knowledge about, the field under consideration. Since most Americans pay only occasional, and sporadic, heed to world affairs, and have, at best, only a hazy understanding of events and personalities outside our borders, it occasions no great surprise that they defer to government officials in the formulation and execution of U.S. foreign policy.
Although the Constitution grants the legislature and the executive branches of the federal government joint responsibility for foreign policy, since at least the era of Teddy Roosevelt, the president has been the government official typically held responsible for the formulation and execution of America’s foreign policy. The U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned presidential supremacy in the conduct of foreign affairs with the 1936 United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. decision (299 U.S. 304). Writing for the 7-1 majority, Associate Justice George Sutherland noted that “the president alone has the power to speak or listen as a representative of the nation.”
If it is true that the president has the prime responsibility for the country’s standing in the world, why don’t perceptions that the country has become less powerful abroad seem to redound to Obama’s detriment?
Perhaps the best explanation comes from the “Limbaugh theorem,” which has been approved by Peter Wehner in Commentary. Limbaugh notes that Obama is always able to be seen as “opposing everything that is happening, even things he is causing to happen.” Obama is seen, especially by low-information-voters, as perpetually campaigning, never as governing. Rush contends that Obama “gets away with everything precisely by appearing to have no involvement with it…. He is not tied to anything going wrong.”
After reiterating the theorem’s essential details, Wehner observes that, “[t]he fact that the American people have allowed the president to escape responsibility for his failed policies time and again is clearly problematic.”
Wehner wonders if Obama can continue to escape responsibility for failed policies into his second term. Sad to say, he may. So long as Obama can convince some people, especially the LIVs, that he should not be held responsible for failed policies, so long as the mainstream media ignore and/or discount bad news, and so long as Americans, again especially the LIVs, refuse to believe that a president means intentionally to harm the country he “leads,” we are not likely to see much change.