Public Has Little Confidence In Obama’s Foreign Policy Or Leadership, New Poll Shows

More bad poll numbers for the President.

Obama Eyes Closed

President Obama’s job approval rating has hit a low point in the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal part, thanks in large part to a precipitous drop in public confidence in the President when it comes to foreign policy:

The percentage of Americans approving of President Barack Obama’s handling of foreign policy issues has dropped to the lowest level of his presidency as he faces multiple overseas challenges, including in Iraq, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Additionally, the public is evenly split on whether Obama is a competent manager of the federal bureaucracy. And a majority of respondents – 54 percent – believe the term-limited president is no longer able to lead the country.

“This is a bad poll for President Obama, and not a good poll for anybody else,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with Democrats Peter Hart and Fred Yang.

“Whether it’s [Vladimir] Putin, Ukraine, the VA hospitals, Bowe Bergdahl, the events have controlled Obama, rather than Obama having controlled the events,” Hart adds. “He may be winning the issues debate, but he’s losing the political debate, because they don’t see him as a leader.”

The poll was crafted before the instability in Iraq grabbed headlines, so it doesn’t contain questions on that subject. It also was conducted before the United States arrested a suspect in the 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya.

But it shows an American public that has grown dissatisfied with President Obama on foreign policy and national security decisions.

Just 37 percent approve of his handling of foreign policy, which is an all-time low in the survey, while 57 percent disapprove, an all-time high.

What’s more, by a 44 percent-to-30 percent margin, Americans disagree with the Obama administration’s decision to secure the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five imprisoned Taliban fighters.

And respondents are evenly divided if the details of Bergdahl’s disappearance from his base in Afghanistan matter in the U.S. decision to secure his release: 47 percent say the details matter, while 46 percent say they don’t.

President Obama’s overall approval rating in the poll is at 41 percent, down three points from April. That’s tied for his all-time low in the survey.

And his favorable-unfavorable rating is upside down (41 percent-45 percent) after being right-side up two months ago (44 percent-41 percent).

<Perhaps most troubling for the president, 54 percent think he is unable to lead the country and get the job done, compared with 42 percent who believe he can.

The general phenomenon of President Obama’s declining poll numbers isn’t new, of course. We’ve seen it in other polls this month, and going as far back as April, with polls showing him hitting lows in job approval that make one wonder how much longer it will be before he hit the levels that his predecessor saw before he left office in 2009. What’s perhaps most remarkable about this poll, and something that should concern the White House if it persists, is the overall decline in the public’s approval of the President’s foreign policy in general and the doubts about his ability to lead in particular. As a general rule, the public tends to give a President more leeway and support on foreign policy issues than on domestic issues, at least that’s been the case historically. To a large degree this has been because there has usually been more domestic agreement on foreign policy issues, and because the public tends to give Presidents the benefit of the doubt when they act in response to an international crisis. Those rules no longer tend to hold, though, when things start to go bad on the international front or when the public begins to doubt the Presidents judgment or ability to lead. This is what happened to such recent former Presidents as George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.

To a large degree, this is exactly what has happened to Barack Obama. For most of his Presidency, foreign policy was the one area where the public tended to approve of his job performance at the same time that they were giving him lower grades on the economy, health care, and general job performance. For example, take a look at this chart from Pollster: (Click to enlarge)

Pollster Obama Foreign Policy

For the vast majority of the Obama Presidency, the President was above water on foreign policy job approval. In no small part, no doubt, this was due to the fact that he had largely followed through on his promise to end the Iraq War and the fact that the Afghan War, while unpopular has largely become an “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon for the American public. The one major dip that occurred seems to have coincided with the Arab Spring of 2011 and the military action in Libya, which the public was largely against according to the polls taken at the time. However, since that was a short and, for the United States at least, bloodless affair, and was followed just a few months later by the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, it didn’t have much of an impact on the general trend. It wasn’t until roughly a year ago that things began to turn sour for the President on foreign policy. It’s difficult to pick any single incident that might be responsible for this, but this does coincide with the Administration’s aborted campaign to lobby for military strikes against Syria, which the public was strongly against, as well as the general post-election decline in Obama’s job approval that I’ve written about before.  Whatever the reason, it seems as though we’ve entered an era where the public is negative on the President’s job performance even in any area where they’ve traditionally given Presidents deference.

Outside of foreign policy, though, that leadership number I highlighted above is the one that should most concern the White House, and Obama’s fellow Democrats. If it holds up, it basically means that the public has lost confidence in the Presidents ability to lead the country on any issue, even the ones they might agree with him on and that makes it harder for the President to make the case for his political agenda going forward. When this happened to George W. Bush, it played a huge role in his ability to navigate the 2008 financial crisis. When it happened to Jimmy Carter, it had an impact on everything from his domestic policy, which even a Congress controlled by his own party started to reject, to foreign policy issues like the Iranian Hostage Crisis and relations with a Soviet Union that was becoming more assertive than it had been in quite some time.

This morning on Morning Joe, NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief Chuck Todd bluntly stated that this is the public telling the President that his Presidency is over:

I’m not sure I’d go quite as far as Todd does in interpreting the results here. At the very least, I’d want to see how this plays out in other polls in the coming months and, most importantly what impact this has on the midterm elections and the fortunes of Obama’s fellow Democrats. As a general rule, however, we’ve known all along that eventually Barack Obama was going to become a lame duck at some point in his Presidency. What this polls seems to show us is that it’s happening sooner than anticipated, and that it could have a serious impact on the President’s ability to get things done not only domestically but also around the world.


FILED UNDER: National Security, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    The majority don’t want to bring home POW’s?
    Obviously driven by the right wing entertainment complex.
    In other words…who cares?

  2. Rick DeMent says:

    Obama’s Foreign Policy has been nothing short of spectacular when compared to his predecessor, granted that is a very low bar but …

  3. rudderpedals says:

    This bodes poorly for Mr. Obama’s reelection campaign.

  4. Fog says:

    So…this means, in contrast, Dick Cheney’s popularity is soaring on the wings of eagles?
    Then it’s just another BS popularity poll without deeper significance.

  5. edmondo says:


    This bodes poorly for Mr. Obama’s reelection campaign.

    I wonder if Kay Hagen, Mark Begich, Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu and Mark Udall are thinking the same thing?

  6. rudderpedals says:

    @edmondo: So long as the oil flows and home state arms contractors are fed foreign policy’s a don’t care input to their campaigns.

  7. Ramalama says:

    You see, the world is like an orange and when you peel the orange your hands get sticky and you have to wash them, you bunch of jackasses.

  8. Jeremy R says:

    While the public has clearly internalized the endless puerile RW “leadership” drumbeat they still think very little of the Right’s foreign policy alternatives:

    Q5 President Obama has announced that he will
    not send U.S. troops to Iraq under any
    circumstances. Senator John McCain has
    argued that the United States should have left
    troops in Iraq rather than withdraw them from
    Iraq as we did in 2011. Would you say you
    agree more with President Obama or Senator
    McCain about whether the U.S. should have
    troops in Iraq?

    President Obama 54% ……………………………………..
    Sen. McCain 28% ……………………………………………
    Not sure 18%

  9. stonetools says:

    I may sound like a broken record here, but the sluggish economy and the impression that the Prsident is powerless to do anything to revive itit is having a big effect on his foreign policy figures and above all on his “leadership” figures, IMO.
    An objective look on his FP record would show that PBO has done quite well, certainly better than those figures.
    Helpful here is EJ Dionne’s latest. The nub:

    His frustration reflected the way in which Washington gridlock may have a larger cost for Democrats than for Republicans — even if Republicans are the ones foiling Democratic proposals, as they did in the Senate last week with the Warren bill. Because the Democrats’ stock in trade is to use government to solve voters’ problems, their supporters become especially disheartened when the legislative process grinds their initiatives to pieces. Obama knows this. “Think about how much more we could do if they were not standing in the way,” he said.

    Also curious is how little traction Obama is getting out of the ongoing recovery. When Ronald Reagan ran for reelection in 1984 and his commercials announced it was “Morning Again in America,” the nation’s unemployment rate averaged 7.5 percent over the year. Unemployment stands at 6.3 percent now. And as Bloomberg reported, if the pace of job growth “is sustained for the remainder of the year, it would mark the fastest-growing labor market in the U.S. since 1999.”

    Why is no one declaring it “Morning in America” now?

    Part of the answer lies in how much damage the Great Recession did — the labor force participation rate is at its lowest level since 1978, median income is still below its 1999 peak and wage growth has been sluggish, though there are signs it’s picking up. Many Democrats worry that touting success could make them look out of touch. But the party’s difficulty in moving the national conversation to economics is also helping to bury promising tidings.

    IOW, the Republicans , by screwing up the wheels of government, has presented an image of an ineffective government and an ineffective President and that affects public perception even in an area where he has been effective.
    The solution would be better messaging, but then this is the Obama Administration we’re talking about….

  10. Eric Florack says:

    Weren’t Carter’s numbers about the same toward the end of his term?

  11. Robin Cohen says:

    Now he’s sending troops as instructors. This man is about as sneaky as it gets. He’s using
    every dirty little trick to send troops to Iraq and calling them something else. There is no reason to waste another American life on this worthless country. He must be stopped ASAP. The Iraqi people must take full responsibility for their failed State and we need to stay the hell out. Obama needs to go.

  12. mannning says:

    It is most unfortunate that over 50% of the nation waived the clear knowledge that Obama was not suitable for the presidency and proceeded to elect him twice. So we are now over 6 trillion dollars more in the red, have been virtually forced to listen to a gaggle of serious and repeated lies to the people, have a stagnant economy, printing money at a furious rate, about to lose the dollar as the world’s reserve currency (which will be disastrous to the economy!), see our foreign relations tank and the bad guys ascend, and good jobs almost impossible to find, with unemployment and those who have given up reaching around 13%, who could possibly call this president and administration a success? Yet he has until 2017 to continue this disassembly of the US Constitution, order up whatever he thinks he can get away with, and use the perks of the presidency to play golf all over the nation at millions a pop of taxpayer money when you include the entourage and planes that must follow him. This is the president that promised a transparent administration and 5 day reviews of all legislation. What a scam artist!

  13. Robin Cohen says:

    With the exception of Jon Huntsman, none of the other candidate had any better foreign policy experience or would have made a better President and he had the integrity and honesty all the others lacked. Looking at recent elections, it seems we really don’t want a President with those qualities, just one who jumps highest when the big, corrupt money donors say jump.