Bruce Stokes
Associate Fellow, US and the Americas Programme
US President Barack Obama makes a statement announcing an interim agreement on Iranian nuclear power in the State Dining Room at the White House 23 November 2013 in Washington, D.C. Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick-Pool/Getty Images.US President Barack Obama makes a statement announcing an interim agreement on Iranian nuclear power at the White House 23 November 2013, Washington D.C. Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick-Pool/Getty Images.

Recent developments regarding Iran, Syria and China suggest that President Barack Obama, like his predecessors, will concentrate more on international issues as his presidency winds down. The American public, however, may not let him do so.

American presidents tend to prioritize foreign policy in their second term as, unable to run again, they lose political leverage over domestic policy. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush spent much time and energy shoring up their international legacies as their tenure in the Oval Office drew to a close. Furthermore, increased interest in foreign affairs is often concentrated in a president’s last two years in office.

With domestic gridlock now seemingly a permanent fixture in Washington and with pressing international issues on his agenda, Barack Obama may be forced to focus more on foreign policy earlier in his fading tenure than many of his predecessors.

But this could prove particularly difficult for the president because of two powerful domestic factors: the American people’s dramatic loss of faith in his leadership in foreign policy and their unprecedentedly high preoccupation with domestic issues.

Declining public support

Just 34% of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy. His performance rating is below 40% for eight of nine specific international policy issues tested in a new survey on America’s Place in the World by the Pew Research Center. He gets some of his lowest approval ratings for his handling of Syria and China (30% on both).

The president’s shifting policy on Syria may have undermined public confidence. The poll was conducted in the wake of his threat to bomb Syria because of its alleged use of chemical weapons, which was followed by his decision to put the issue to Congress and the agreement, brokered in part by Russia, to destroy Damascus’ chemical weapons.

The China numbers may reflect a broader public disaffection with Beijing, coupled with a sense that China is surpassing the United States. Only 33% of those surveyed have a favourable view of China, the lowest since this question was first asked in 2005. A 48% plurality of Americans now see China as the world’s leading economic power. In George W. Bush’s last year in office the public still saw the United States as the economic superpower.

Just 37% of the public think Obama has done a good job handling relations with Iran. Most Americans do not believe that Iran’s leaders are serious about addressing concerns over its nuclear programme. The latest survey was completed before the multilateral agreement aimed at freezing the country’s nuclear development programme. This public distrust may give heart to those in Congress who want to pass more economic sanctions against Tehran regardless of the new agreement. Such sentiment could also complicate congressional approval of any final nuclear deal with Iran next year, if one is forthcoming.

The only foreign policy issue where the public gives Obama passing marks (51%) is his handling of terrorism. This may, in part, reflect continuing support (50%) for the use of drones to target militants and the legacy of the successful operation against Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.

The return of isolationism?

Public unease with Obama’s management of foreign policy occurs against a backdrop of an unprecedented lack of support for American engagement with the rest of the world. The public says that the country does too much to solve world problems, and increasingly wants its leaders to pay more attention to problems at home.

About half of Americans (51%) say that the United States is over-extended abroad. When asked to describe why they feel this way, 47% say problems at home, including the economy, should get more attention instead.

Scepticism about international engagement has increased. Currently, 52% say the United States ‘should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own’. Just 38% disagree with that statement. Such public scepticism has manifested itself and then waned at various times in recent history, most notably after the Vietnam war. But this is the most lopsided split in favour of the US ‘minding its own business’ in the nearly 50 years since this question has been asked.

Yet such views are not those of an old-fashioned American isolationism rooted in 1930s-style pacifism and protectionism. Only 28% of the public want to decrease the defence budget while 66% think greater involvement in the global economy is a good thing. Rather, the opinions expressed suggest a disinclination for adventurism abroad and a sense that the president’s priorities should be focused on domestic problems.

The argument that Barack Obama will spend more of his time on foreign affairs in his second term, because of tradition, domestic gridlock and pressing challenges overseas, comes with a caveat. The American public is not so sure it likes what Obama has accomplished in foreign affairs and they want the nation to focus on problems at home in the next few years. If US friends and allies are looking to Washington to lead on pressing issues around the world − from Syria to Ukraine to North Korea − they should realize that Americans are not inclined to play that role.

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