When President Barack Obama addresses the nation Tuesday in his bid for airstrikes against Syria, he will confront the most unfriendly political landscape of his presidency, one where opposition knows no boundaries and Democrats, Republicans, whites, blacks, Hispanics, old, young, men and women all are deeply skeptical of the mission.
A solid majority of voters opposes airstrikes and wants Congress to reject Obama’s request for approval, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll. A majority thinks he does not have a clear idea of what he’s doing with Syria. The ranks of Americans who approve of the way he’s handling foreign policy has dropped to the lowest level since he assumed office. And an overwhelming majority insists he stand down should Congress vote no.
“Clearly this president needs to be very persuasive Tuesday,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York, which conducted the poll.
There are two hints of openings for Obama as he presses his case, in a luncheon Tuesday with Republican senators and then in a nationwide, prime-time television address at 9 p.m. EDT.
First, Americans do see Syria’s use of chemical weapons as a potential danger to this country and its interests – 54 percent said it posed a significant threat. Second, support for airstrikes would jump from 31 percent to 47 percent if Congress did approve, while opposition would drop from 58 percent to 46 percent.
Obama appears to have more support in the Senate than in the House of Representatives, where public opinion often weighs more on members who face voters every two years.
“They don’t think he’s made the case,” Miringoff said of the voters.
Regardless of how pollsters asked the question, the same doubts surfaced. “The public worries we won’t accomplish our goals and a strike will have long-term consequences,” Miringoff said.
Voters by 58 percent to 31 percent oppose airstrikes. They also think members of Congress should not authorize an attack, by 54 percent to 38 percent.
If Obama should go ahead with his Syria plan after a no vote in Congress, as the administration has suggested it could, the public outcry could be thunderous. Voters by 74 percent to 20 percent said he should not launch an airstrike without congressional approval.
The president on Aug. 31 asked Congress to back military action against Syria. U.S. intelligence officials maintain that on Aug. 21, President Bashar Assad’s regime launched a chemical attack using sarin gas that killed more than 1,000 people in a Damascus suburb.
Obama’s bid has met strong resistance on Capitol Hill. Officials have conducted briefings almost daily for the past week, including more on Monday, but the administration appears to be well short of the votes it needs.
Unlike most presidential initiatives, the usual partisan pressure tactics don’t often work on a vote for military action. Such votes tend to be very personal, and more so than most, driven by constituent sentiment.
That sentiment is clear, regardless of political party. Democrats were opposed to airstrikes, 50 percent to 36 percent, while Republicans were against a strike 66 percent to 24 percent. Independents rejected the idea 60 percent to 31 percent.
People indicated a yes vote could mean political peril for members of Congress. About one in four voters said they would be less likely to vote for their lawmaker if he backed Obama on Syria, while 13 percent said they were more likely to vote for a supportive lawmaker.
“All of their voting does make a difference to me,” said Lisa Cullen, 47, a saleswoman and a Democrat from Charlotte, N.C.
It also matters to Democrat Gloria Mauricio, 63, of San Antonio, Texas. “I don’t want there to be another war. They can bomb us just as bad,” she said.
Republicans could feel the most heat – one in three Republicans say they’d be less likely to back someone who supported the president, compared with one in five Democrats.
Overall, the survey offered a portrait of a public with little taste for Obama’s plan.
“Basically, we feel it’s a situation where it opens up so many other wounds and difficulties in the international arena we’re involved in,” said Rema Gray-Olyphant, a retired teacher from Melbourne, Fla.
Voters do support Obama asking Congress for approval.
“I think it’s important, with what happened over the last decade, that they see our government . . . as one body," said Louis Dominguez, 66, a retired teacher from San Pedro, Calif., referring to lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The president’s job approval rating was 44 percent, up slightly from July. But 54 percent dislike of his handling of foreign policy, a sharp increase from July and the first time since he became president in January 2009 that a majority have disapproved. The 38 percent who do approve of his foreign policy work is the lowest of his presidency.
Obama’s recent action “makes us look weak. He has made a mockery out of our foreign policy,” said Rick Turner, 39, who works in the Dallas restaurant industry. “I would have supported America’s use of force if we hadn’t of hemmed and hawed about it. I think we have lost every advantage that we had.”
Judy Crow O’Donnell, a retired clergywoman from Fort Worth, Texas, still backs Obama but opposes the airstrikes.
“I am glad that he is bringing in Congress, but I am also a pacifist, and I think violence begets violence,” she said.
Americans also want help from other nations. By 77 percent to 21 percent, respondents wanted the U.S. to have support from other countries. Great Britain, traditionally one of the United States’ strongest allies, won’t be part of a coalition since its House of Commons voted against the mission.
Even limited strikes – “unbelievably small,” Secretary of State John Kerry has said – worry Americans.
By 55 percent to 39 percent, they said such action would make it likely the U.S. was in for a long-term military commitment in Syria. Nor do people think Syria will be discouraged from using chemical weapons. By a slim margin, 49 percent to 47 percent, the public thinks that country is likely to use such weapons.
This survey of 963 adults was conducted Sept. 7-8. Adults 18 years of age and older residing in the continental United States were interviewed by telephone. Telephone numbers were selected based upon a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the nation. The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. To increase coverage, this landline sample was supplemented by respondents reached through random dialing of cellphone numbers. The two samples were then combined and balanced to reflect the 2010 Census results for age, gender, income, race, and region. Results are statistically significant within plus or minus 3.2 percentage points. There are 856 registered voters. The results for this subset are statistically significant within plus or minus 3.3 percentage points. The error margin increases for cross-tabulations.
Mary Faddoul and Kendall Helblig of the Washington Bureau contributed.