Bruce Stokes
Associate Fellow, US and the Americas Programme
President Obama’s State of the Union address, and the reaction to it, reflects both the partisanship in Washington and the split personality of US public opinion on foreign policy.
Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address on 20 January 2015 in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Photo by Getty Images.Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address on 20 January 2015 in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Photo by Getty Images.

On 20 January, Democratic president Barack Obama delivered his annual State of the Union address to the Republican-controlled US Congress. His speech took place amid widespread speculation, both at home and abroad, of new-found bipartisan cooperation in Washington on a range of issues that affect US relations with the rest of the world. But as the immediate Republican reaction to the speech demonstrates, those expectations exist against a backdrop of continuing partisan gridlock in the United States, raising questions about the future course of US foreign policy.

Recent US public opinion findings give reason for both optimism and pessimism on these fronts. Americans’ isolationist sentiments, which had been at an all-time high just a year ago, seem to have eased a bit as the US faces challenges posed by both Islamic State (IS) and Russia. And Americans embrace global economic engagement.

But Americans remain wary of becoming too deeply involved in world affairs. And they are skeptical about globalization’s impact on their jobs and wages. Moreover, Americans are polarized politically over strategic and economic issues such as Russia, Islamist extremism, climate change and trade. And Obama’s standing in the public opinion polls shows only scant sign of rebounding – at 47 per cent, it stands five points higher than his September 2014 low point and better than George W. Bush’s rating at the same point in his presidency in 2007. But Obama’s approval ratings remain strongly tied to partisan affiliation, with 80 per cent of Democrats and only 10 per cent of Republicans approving of him. And despite overtones of bipartisan collaboration, Obama’s aggressive use of executive action and invocation of Democratic policy priorities in the speech seem unlikely to change that basic dynamic.

So what exactly Obama and the Republican-controlled Congress can agree to accomplish internationally in the year ahead may well be constrained by American public opinion, which will in turn give partisans in Washington few reasons to seek compromise.  

Isolationism is a recurring theme in American domestic politics, although it may be ebbing at the moment. In November 2013, 51 per cent of Americans said they thought the US was doing too much in helping to solve world problems, according to a Pew Research survey. But by August 2014 just 39 per cent held such isolationist views. Meanwhile, the proportion of the public who said the US was doing too little internationally grew from 17 per cent to 31 per cent.

Much of this turnaround may be attributable to public concern about the threat posed by IS and terrorism. Fully 57 per cent of Americans approve of the Obama administration’s military campaign against IS in Syria and Iraq, giving Congress an incentive to heed Obama’s call for a formal authorization of military action against the group. Nevertheless, Americans remain divided over the implications of such action: 47 per cent worry it will go too far.  

Moreover, Americans are increasingly concerned about Russia. Nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) think Moscow is a serious threat to the United States, up significantly from the 44 per cent who thought so in 2012, according to a recent CNN survey.

However, there are limits to what the American public is willing to do about Russia. In response to the Putin government’s actions in Ukraine, 68 per cent of Americans held the view that Ukraine should be offered NATO membership and 64 per cent supported economic sanctions against Moscow, but only 44 per cent favoured Washington sending military supplies and equipment to the beleaguered Ukrainian state, according to the 2014 German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Trends survey

It is notable that contrary to conventional wisdom, US isolationism does not go hand-in-hand with protectionism. Two-thirds (66 per cent) of Americans say greater US involvement in the world economy is a good thing, and a similar proportion believe that trade is good for the country. Moreover, 55 per cent express the view that the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which may come up for a vote in Congress this year, would be good for the country. 53 per cent support the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which both Washington and Brussels hope to complete in 2015.  

Nevertheless, Americans are skeptical of the benefits of such globalization for them personally. Just 20 per cent of Americans hold the view that trade creates jobs and only 17 per cent believe it raises wages, suggesting that the argument made by the Obama administration and the US business community in favour of these trade deals has little traction with the public. Obama referenced those concerns, saying that past trade deals ‘hadn’t always lived up to the hype’ even as he pushed for negotiating authority to make the new deals.

The partisanship evident in Obama’s approval ratings also manifests itself across a range of international issues. While 57 per cent of Democrats fear that US action against Islamic militants will go too far, 63 per cent of Republicans are concerned it will not go far enough. In the wake of recent events in Paris, 64 per cent are very or somewhat worried there will soon be another terrorist attack in the United States. But even that has partisan divisions, with 77 per cent of Republicans and 59 per cent of Democrats indicating that they are concerned about such an attack. Meanwhile, 64 per cent of Republicans favour providing arms and military training to Ukraine, but only 54 per cent of Democrats agree. And 60 per cent of Democrats back TTIP, but only 44 per cent of Republicans do.

Getting things done with bipartisan support are themes now being stressed by both the Republican leadership in Congress and the White House. President Obama reiterated those sentiments in his State of the Union. But the message sent by the American public is far more mixed: they support strategic and economic engagement with the rest of the world, but within limits, and they remain divided on many of these issues along partisan lines, whatever their party leaders in Washington say. Whether this will lead to bipartisan, compromise solutions or yet greater acrimony over the direction of American foreign policy remains to be seen.

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