America focuses on the home front

By Bruce Stokes

A second term for any American president allows the incumbent to press reset buttons on foreign and economic policy. He can double down on what’s worked or pursue a new path on past policies that have proven ineffective or politically unpopular.

But Washington’s new direction is unclear. President Barack Obama will spell out a game plan in his annual State of the Union address. Until 12 February, observers are left to read the tea leaves found in the president’s second inaugural address and the public statements of nominees to fill key cabinet positions in the second term, such as Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense–designate Chuck Hagel.

So far, the Obama administration signals intent to focus on domestic concerns. The economy (86 per cent of the American public say it is a “top priority”), jobs (79 per cent) and the budget deficit (72 per cent) dominate concerns, according to a January Pew Research Center survey. Immigration (39 per cent) and gun control (37 per cent) may be at the centre of the current political debate in Washington, but the US public assigns them less priority. Nevertheless, separate surveys show strong support for passage of some kind of gun control and immigration reform.

Other than dealing with terrorism — 71 per cent of the survey group labels it as a priority — international issues barely make it on to the public’s radar screen. Hagel said in his confirmation hearing: “America must engage, not retreat, in the world”. But 83 per cent think Washington should pay more attention to issues at home. Such isolationist sentiment has increased 10 percentage points in the last decade.

US priorities according to Pew polling

Global concerns the Obama administration acknowledges as important lack significant support from the American people, even from those who re-elected Obama.

It’s notable that in the president’s inaugural address that Iran, China, and the Israeli-Palestinian troubles — looming international challenges for the United States — were not mentioned by name. The president mentioned Afghanistan, America’s longest running war, obliquely: “a decade of war is now ending”. This scripted applause line reflects that 60 per cent of Americans want the United States out of that war-torn nation as soon as possible. Obama made no mention of whether or not he plans to accelerate the withdrawal timetable.

On Syria, Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing, “I think [Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president] is not long for remaining as the head of state in Syria”. He gave no hint of deeper US engagement in the Syrian crisis.

This disinclination toward intervention reflects US public opinion, with 63 per cent of Americans saying Washington has no responsibility to stop the fighting in Syria, according to another Pew Research Center poll. And 65 per cent oppose the United States sending arms to anti-government groups in Syria.

Moreover, this is not a partisan issue in the United States. Comparable majorities of Republicans (66 per cent), Democrats (61 per cent) and independents (65 per cent) say the US has no responsibility to get involved. Partisan groups also oppose shipping armaments to the rebels.

So any escalation of US involvement in Syria may lack popular support.

How to deal with Iran and its nuclear program is another security challenge for the administration. Kerry, during his confirmation hearing, reiterated the administration’s policy, hinting at some impatience: “we will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon ... and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance.”

The American public seems poised to back the administration in any confrontation with Iran. By 94 per cent, they oppose Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons. Among the opposition, 80 per cent favor tougher economic sanctions; 56 per cent prefer a firm stand against Iran’s nuclear program compared with 35 per cent who prefer avoiding a military conflict. Such attitudes seem to be hardening. A year ago, 50 per cent favoured taking a firm stand against Iran, and 41 per cent said it was more important to avoid a confrontation.

In the wake of December’s fighting between Israel and the Palestinian territories, that long-simmering dispute is on the front burner. Kerry suggests there’s a “way forward” on peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians: “Perhaps this can be a moment where we can renew some kind of effort to get the parties into a discussion to have a different track than we have been on over the last couple of years.”

But the American people are hardly disinterested observers on this issue. For decades, the public has empathised with Israel rather than the Palestinians. That remains the case today. Overall, half of Americans say they sympathise more with Israel, compared with 10 per cent who say they sympathise more with the Palestinians.

But sharp partisan divisions on this issue may create maneuvering room for Obama diplomacy. Liberal Democrats, the Obama base, are divided: 33 per cent sympathise more with Israel, 22 per cent with the Palestinians. Conservative Republicans, certainly not a constituency that Obama could count on, maintain strong support for Israel, with 75 per cent saying they side with Israel compared with 2 per cent who sympathise with the Palestinians.

Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants, a group that voted overwhelmingly for Obama’s 2012 opponent Mitt Romney, remain strongly supportive of Israel. Two-thirds say they sympathise more with Israel; 5 percent say they sympathise more with the Palestinians.

In addition, there are age differences in Mideast sympathies. For Americans younger than 30, a group that voted overwhelmingly for Obama twice, sympathy for Israel is lower, 38 per cent, than among any other age group.

On China, Kerry has described the relationship as a “tough slog”; 49 per cent of Americans say they want the US to get tougher with China on economic issues, compared with 42 per cent who say it’s more important to build a stronger relationship. In March 2011, the balance of opinion was the reverse: 53 per cent said building a stronger relationship was more important while 40 per cent advocated tougher policies.

On the issue of Washington continuing to be the military security guarantor for the world, Defense Secretary nominee Hagel has been clear. In response to written questions by the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said: “America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world”.

Only 41 per cent of Americans say strengthening the military is a top priority. That includes 31 per cent of the president’s own party members and 29 per cent of those under the age of 30.

On global warming, Obama has promised: “We will respond to the threat of climate change.” Others outside the United States should not get their hopes up. Only 28 per cent of Americans say dealing with global warming should be a top priority for the president and Congress this year. That includes 38 per cent of Democrats, 32 per cent of people under age 30 and 29 per cent of women.

The President has also raised expectations for those who hope to emigrate to the United States. But recent political debate has largely focused on what to do with those already in the country illegally: 39 per cent of Americans label the issue of illegal immigration as a top priority; among Hispanics, a key Obama constituency, 31 per cent make this issue a top priority.

The president’s inaugural address and the confirmation testimony of Kerry and Hagel are being scrutinised by foreigners for signs of America’s international intentions. To separate lofty ambitions from practical realities, their statements must be interpreted in the context of US public opinion — and that means they should be taken with a large grain of salt.

This post was originally published at YaleGlobal

8 February 2013