On the eve of Monday’s foreign policy debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the electorate appears increasingly disillusioned with the so-called Arab Spring, according to a new survey released by the Pew Research Center here.
A majority (57 percent) of the more than 1,500 respondents said they do not believe that recent changes in the political leadership of Arab countries will “lead to lasting improvements” for the region, while only 14 percent – down from 24 percent 18 months ago – said they believe the changes will be “good for the United States”.
Nearly three out of four voters said the changes will either be “bad” for Washington (36 percent) or won’t have much of an effect either way (38 percent).
Both positions could favor Romney and the Republicans who, since last month’s killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three of his staff in Benghazi, have argued that Obama’s policy toward the Arab world is unraveling.
Friday’s killing in Beirut of Lebanon’s top intelligence officer and at least seven other people could add to that perception, as Col. Wissam al-Hassan was aligned with the “March 14” coalition, a Sunni-led faction with close ties to Washington and strongly opposed to the Al-Assad regime in Syria.
The poll, which was conducted Oct. 4-7, also found a somewhat tougher position toward both Iran’s nuclear program and on China’s trade policies.
Monday’s debate, the third and last in a series between the two candidates before the Nov. 6 election, is not expected to draw the huge television audiences – over 65 million people – of the last two, due to the relative lack of interest in foreign policy compared to domestic issues, especially the economy.
“While foreign affairs had had a higher profile recently, this is a campaign dominated by domestic issues,” according to Pew’s director, Andrew Kohut, who noted that only seven percent of respondents in another recent Pew poll cited foreign policy as a major priority compared to 41 percent when George W. Bush ran for re-election in 2004.
“The public is decidedly more isolationist than in some time,” he said, in part as a result of a lessening of “concern about terrorism as a national-security threat.”
The new poll got considerable media attention when it was released here Thursday because it showed Romney cutting deeply into the long-held lead sustained by Obama over many months in surveys that asked which candidate they trusted most to conduct the nation’s foreign policy.
In early September, a Bloomberg poll found that Obama led Romney by a 53-38 percent margin on this question, but Thursday’s Pew poll found that margin reduced to 47-43 percent in Obama’s favor. While Republicans leaped on the poll as evidence that their recent attacks on Obama’s Middle East policy – focused primarily on his administration’s alleged failure to respond to requests by its embassy in Tripoli for enhanced security – were drawing blood.
But Kohout suggested Friday that Romney’s gains were probably due more to Obama’s poor performance in the first debate, which took place Oct. 3, the day before Pew began polling, than to disillusionment with Obama’s foreign policy.
Noting that Obama is generally seen has having won the second debate Tuesday. “On the next poll, I expect Obama to do better on foreign policy,” he said, noting that polls over the past year have found consistently found foreign policy to be Obama’s strongest suit.
Monday’s debate is expected to center on a number of key issues, particularly U.S. policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan and, to a somewhat lesser extent, on the most effective approach toward China, especially its trade and monetary policies about which Romney has been particularly hawkish on the campaign trail.
NATO and Russia under President Vladimir Putin, which Romney has called Washington’s “Number one geo-political foe”, are also expected to get some attention, possibly along with climate change which has been almost entirely ignored by both candidates in the campaign so far.
The main findings of the new poll include strong skepticism over whether the leadership changes in the Middle East will benefit either the local population or the U.S. Asked which was more important in the region – democratic governments and less stability or stable governments with less democracy, a 54 percent majority opted for the latter.
On Iran, the public appears to be somewhat more hawkish than 10 months ago. Asked whether, with respect to Iran’s nuclear program, it was more important to “take a firm stand” against it or “to avoid military conflict with Iran, 56 percent opted for a “firm stand” – which, however, did not explicitly mention a military attack – six percent more than when the same question was asked last January.
Respondents were split equally over on the question of whether Obama or Romney, who is perceived as taking a more hawkish line on Iran, would be best in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.
Romney, who has promised to declare China as a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office and presumably follow up with sanctions, got his greatest support on the question of who would best deal with China’s trade policies. Forty-nine percent cited Romney compared to 40 percent for Obama whose “China-bashing has been somewhat more restrained during the campaign.
Indeed, the campaign appears to have contributed to a generally more hawkish attitude toward Beijing on economic issues. In March 2011, 53 percent of respondents said “building a stronger relationship” with China was more important than “getting tougher” with it on economic issues. Those figures are now practically reversed, with 49 percent favoring the second option and only 40 percent the first.
On the other hand, Obama’s main advantage was in dealing with political instability the Middle East by a 47-42 percent margin.
That may reflect popular support for what Republicans mock as Obama’s alleged preference for “leading from behind” in the region. Only 23 percent of respondents said they believe the U.S. should be “more involved” in fostering leadership changes in the Middle East, while a whopping 63 percent – including 53 percent of Republicans – said they believe Washington should be “less involved”.
Romney has generally favored somewhat more interventionist policies in the region, notably with respect to arming rebels in the civil war in Syria.
On Israel, a plurality believes that current U.S. support for the Jewish state is “about right” as opposed to 22 percent who believe that Washington is too supportive, and 25 percent who think it has not been supportive enough.
The poll confirmed a major partisan divide on this question: 46 percent of Republicans believe U.S. policy has not been sufficiently supportive. “White evangelicals are extremely committed to Israel,” noted Kohout, who added that they form about 40 percent of the Republican base.
As in other recent surveys, the latest poll found major differences between the so-called millennial general – adults under age 30, and other age groups. On the question of Iran’s nuclear program, for example, a 49 percent plurality of millennials preferred to “avoid military conflict”, while only 24 percent of those 65 and older take that position.
Similarly, on economic policy toward China, 70 percent of millennials favor stronger relations with Beijing instead of “getting tougher”. Only 41 percent of those 65 and older agreed.
“[The millennials] have a very different worldview,” said Kohout. “This is a much more liberal, Democratically disposed generation.”
A major challenge faced by the Obama campaign is to get millennials to the polls, as their abstention rate has been significantly higher than any other age group.