As next week’s midterm elections approach, many pundits and analysts expect that a handful of close races will determine who will control Congress for the rest of President Obama’s term in office. A poll by the Pew Research Center found that many Americans view the midterms as a referendum on the President’s performance, noting that “Fully 61% of Republican voters consider their congressional ballot as a vote against the president.” Despite the hard electoral battle faced by many Democrats, recent polls have also found strong popular support for progressive policies on national security and foreign policy issues. The polling data on the issues are clear: The American public is confident in the Obama Administration’s response to the Ebola crisis, favors a limited counterterrorism mission in Iraq and Syria, supports diplomacy with Iran, would like to see Pentagon spending decrease, and wants a multilateral, international approach to foreign policy challenges.
Ebola: Americans are concerned and misinformed, but still trust the U.S. government’s response both at home and abroad. According to a recent Pew poll, 49% of Americans are following news of the Ebola outbreak closely, making it far and away the most tracked news story. Despite that interest, public opinion on Ebola is muddled. Much of the public is misinformed about the virus: As William Saletan notes in Slate, “In a poll taken for the Harvard School of Public Health, 88 percent of respondents said it’s likely-and 58 percent said it’s very likely-that a person could catch Ebola from ‘being sneezed or coughed on by someone who has Ebola.’ In a Harris/Health Day poll, 75 percent said they were ‘concerned that individuals carrying the Ebola virus will infect others before beginning to show symptoms.'” Another poll
found that many Americans are avoiding large crowds and public transportation for fear of Ebola.
Despite the shocking lack of information on the subject, and despite the fact that a majority of Americans favor some sort of ban on travel to or from West Africa, a majority of Americans are still confident in the U.S. government’s ability to respond to the crisis – and in fact, that confidence may be growing. Pew found that 57% of Americans said they have “a great deal” or a “fair amount” of confidence in the government’s response in the first week of October. That dipped to 54% by the middle of the month, but is now up to 63% according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released today. Gallup notes that the levels of confidence in the U.S. government to prevent an Ebola outbreak in the United States are comparable to similar fears over H1N1/Swine Flu in 2009 and Bird Flu in 2005. Americans also told Pew that they trust the Center for Disease Control more than news organizations. An overwhelming majority of the public (77%) support U.S. efforts to combat Ebola in West Africa. [William Saletan via Slate, 10/20/14]
Counterterrorism: Americans are worried about mission creep in Iraq and Syria, while fear of terrorism continues to decline. Many Americans are skeptical of the Administration’s strategy to combat the Islamic State; according to Pew, nearly two-thirds of the public feels the United States does not have a clear goal and is skeptical about the campaign’s progress so far. Despite these doubts, most Americans have approved of President Obama’s handling of the situation – rating the Administration’s response more favorably than its handling of any other foreign policy crisis this year, Aaron Blake at the Washington Post noted earlier this month. According to the same Pew poll, a majority of Americans (55%) oppose the introduction of U.S. ground troops into the conflict, and a plurality of Americans (including 30% of Republicans and 51% of independents) fear the United States “will go too far getting involved” in Iraq and Syria. A recent report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that, while Americans still strongly favor U.S. airstrikes against terrorist facilities and targeting terrorist leaders, there has been a precipitous decline in support for use of U.S. troops in counterterrorism operations since 2010.
Despite the attention given to the Islamic State, it may not figure prominently in most Americans’ election decisions. Even with a modest rise since the Islamic State’s offensive in Iraq gained momentum in June, only 4% of Americans rank terrorism as the most important problem facing the nation, according to a recent Gallup poll. The Chicago Council also found in a report released in September that the number of Americans who consider international terrorism a “critical threat” has continued to decline steadily since 2010.
Iran: The American public has consistently and emphatically supported diplomacy with Iran. Polling data demonstrate that the Obama Administration’s diplomatic approach to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon has overwhelming popular support. A new report by the Chicago Council found that 77% of Americans “support diplomatic efforts to stop Iranian enrichment,” and 73% support diplomatic engagement with Iran broadly. A thorough study in July by the Program for Public Consultation found that, when presented with likely outcomes of the current P5+1 negotiations, including scenarios in which Iran continues limited but monitored uranium enrichment, 61% of Americans favored an agreement. These views aren’t new: Americans have consistently supported a diplomatic approach to addressing Iran’s nuclear program for years.
Defense Budget: The public supports keeping Pentagon spending restrained – or even reduced further – not increased. The most recent Gallup poll on funding for the Department of Defense, from February of this year, found that Americans support keeping Pentagon spending at current levels or decreasing it further. “Americans’ views of the money spent on national defense and the military have held fairly steady in recent years, with 37% now saying the nation spends too much and 28% saying it spends too little. The rest say spending is about right,” according to the poll results. When given a choice of a single budget area to cut, 41% chose the military, with only 23% choosing Medicare and 16% choosing social security, according to the most recent poll by CBS News. These views roughly correspond to some elite polling samples. The most recent survey of members of the Council on Foreign Relations, conducted during October-November 2013 (after sequestration went into effect), found that 51% wanted decreased “defense spending,” 39% wanted spending “Kept about the same,” and only 9% wanted higher spending. [Gallup, 2/27/14. CBS News Poll, 10/13. Pew Research Center, 12/3/13]
Multilateral Diplomacy: Americans want the U.S. government to be a leader in constructive international engagement and recognize the need for compromise in diplomacy. The Chicago Council’s 2014 report “Foreign Policy in the Age of Retrenchment” states that “While they support a strong leadership role for the United States, Americans seem comfortable living in a world where power is diffusing among nations and institutions,” noting that “only a minority sees the development of China as a world power as a critical threat to US interests (41%), compared to majorities in the mid-1990s.” This also extends to international institutions. “Americans also support more cooperative engagement, including through the United Nations,” the report states. “Six in ten agree that when dealing with international problems, the United States should be more willing to make decisions within the United Nations, even if this means that the United States will sometimes have to go along with a policy that is not its first choice (59%, up 7 points since 2008)…These results align with a November 2013 Pew Research Center survey showing that a solid majority of Americans favor a shared leadership role for the United States (72%) rather than a role as a single world leader or no leadership role at all.”