White House

Poll: Public backing grows for Obama’s actions against Islamic State

The guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea launches a Tomahawk cruise missile at Islamic State group positions in Syria as seen from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Eric Garst, U.S. Navy)
The guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea launches a Tomahawk cruise missile at Islamic State group positions in Syria as seen from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Eric Garst, U.S. Navy) AP

Americans overwhelmingly back U.S. airstrikes against terrorists in Syria and are increasingly supportive of President Barack Obama’s handling of the crisis, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll.

But that approval and confidence appears fragile, particularly on whether the United States should send ground troops if the policy falters.

“There’s a public increasingly willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York, which conducted the poll. At the same time, though, he said, the survey found that the polarization that’s gripped Washington and the nation for years “doesn’t go away.”

Obama ordered the American military to begin airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Sept. 22. The survey of 1,052 adults – including 884 registered voters – was conducted Sept. 24 to 29, and it found Obama’s job approval rating up to 46 percent. It had languished at 40 percent this summer.

Sparking the increase was support for the president’s foreign policy – 46 percent approved, up from 33 percent the previous month – though Republicans largely disapprove while Democrats back Obama overwhelmingly. Nonetheless, the overall number was Obama’s best showing since December.

Notably popular were the airstrikes. Four of five registered voters approved, with considerable support across the political spectrum, from the very liberal to the supporters of the tea party.

While more Americans are rallying around the president, the polls highlights deep partisan divisions on key foreign-policy questions.

– While 70 percent of Democrats approve how Obama is handling the Islamic State, two-thirds of Republicans disapprove.

– Republicans are far more willing to back ground troops than Democrats are.

– Democrats largely trust the president to come up with a sound strategy for fighting the terrorist group, but Republicans are wary.

– Democrats tend to think the country is safer today than it was on Sept. 11, 2001. Republicans are split.

How these divisions affect military policy might become clear once Congress returns to work in November. The House of Representatives and the Senate voted last month to approve Obama’s plan to arm and train Syrian rebels.

The White House believes it already has the authority to carry out its military mission against the Islamic State, but it’s said it would welcome a formal authorization of force. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said this week that he’d be happy to have that vote if Obama sought it.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, had a different take. She told a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday that Congress should return to Washington and debate strategy.

“I think it has to spring from Congress,” she said. “Congress has to vote on it, and it defines how we would limit the power of the president, or not, but it’s our decision. It’s not the president’s decision.”

That debate is likely to expose stark partisan divides, particularly if airstrikes prove ineffective.

The poll found the nation split 48-48 on whether the U.S. should send ground troops if current strategies don’t work.

Democrats are less supportive of the idea: Just 1 in 3 back that step. Two of three Republicans would support it.

Obama has a dilemma as he proceeds. He’d probably have to rely on Republican support, but “if he goes too far, he risks alienating his base” among Democrats, Miringoff said.

Getting strong Republican support might be tough, because only 1 in 5 said they had a great deal or a good amount of trust in the president to make the right decision regarding the threat posed by the Islamic State. Four of five Democrats trusted Obama.

The partisan chasm was evident on other related questions. Only 1 in 5 Republicans trusted the president to come up with a sound strategy; 4 in 5 Democrats thought he would do just that. There was a similar split between party loyalists regarding trust in Obama’s ability to avoid a domestic act of terrorism.

The public clearly wants strong action against the Islamic State and feels strongly that the government can help. Nearly 60 percent of those polled called the group a major threat to the United States, and 84 percent were concerned or very concerned about the possibility of more domestic terror attacks. That’s the highest number the poll has recorded since the 9/11 attacks.

Nearly 70 percent think the government is prepared for such incidents, and they’re confident that the government will protect the areas where they live from terrorist attacks, up from previous surveys.

But the partisan split was evident when the topic was whether people felt safer now than they did before 2001. Four in five Democrats said yes, while only half the Republicans agreed.

The poll has an overall margin of error of 3 percentage points; the margin is 3.3 percentage points among registered voters polled.

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