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Richard Baehr

Americans tune out on foreign policy

The latest New York Times/CBS news poll on U.S. presidential politics, like most prior surveys conducted by the two news organizations, suggests that U.S. President Barack Obama has higher approval among registered voters than he has received in surveys by other polling organizations.

This result is pre-ordained by looking at the sample of those polled -- a group that claims to have voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by a near 3 to 2 margin (40% to 27%, the remainder either non-voters in 2008 or supporters of minor party candidates).

Since Obama won the 2008 presidential election by a 53% to 46% margin, the survey sample is fairly heavily skewed to the Left. The number of those who identify as Democrats is 10% higher than the number of those who identify as Republicans, another marker that is out of touch with most other surveys which suggest near-equal partisan identification. The survey indicates that Obamas current approval score is 46%, the same as his disapproval score, at a time when most other surveys indicate the president is under water on this number, by around 7%.

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But the most revealing questions in the survey relate to foreign policy. When asked to identify the most important problem facing the country now, 1% identified foreign policy, 1% identified war, and 0% identified terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan, or defense. A 0% score means fewer than one in every 200 polled picked this issue (less than 0.5%). Jobs and the economy were identified by a combined 57% of those surveyed. In short, Americans appear to have tuned out on foreign policy, except it would seem for one-day news stories (Bin Laden dead, Gadhafi dead, 12 dead in Afghanistan). The overriding issues of mounting a strong defense of the homeland and responding to the terror attacks of 9/11, topics that dominated the presidency of George W. Bush, have faded during the last three years.

Obamas decision to pull remaining U.S troops out of Iraq by year's end appears to be a popular one. The presidents approval score for his handling of foreign policy is now 50% favorable, 31% unfavorable. The presidents handling of Iraq is even more popular, by 60% to 30%, and Obamas announcement of the decision on Iraq troop withdrawal boosted both his foreign policy score and his Iraq score.

On the other hand, Americans seem very unhappy with the presidents handling of the economy, with the performance of Congress, with high unemployment levels, big deficits, and income and wealth inequality, and are pessimistic about the countrys future. It is not at all surprising that in this environment, with domestic concerns dominating the news and voters concerns, that pulling back from foreign entanglements that have resulted in heavy expenditures, and the loss of more than 5,000 American lives seems like an attractive path to many Americans.

Since the debate began over the presidents unpopular health-care reform initiative in the spring of 2009, and the emergence of the Tea Party, the presidents approval rating has been on a slow but steady decline. It has had four spikes up during this two-and-a-half-year period. The first was when a deal was reached between the president and the lame duck Congress in December 2010 to extend all the Bush tax cuts, create a new 2% payroll tax cut, and extend unemployment insurance benefits. This was Washington doing what it does best -- giving away money the country does not have (and needs to borrow), providing tax cuts to please Republicans, and creating more spending to please Democrats.

Within a few months, Obamas approval rating had dropped back. The assassination of Osama bin Laden also gave a short-term boost to Obamas approval level, which again lasted for but a few weeks. The two latest bumps came from the killing of Libyas Moammar Gadhafi, and the assumption that this unpopular war, which got very little news coverage, was over, and also from the announcement of the Iraq troop pullout. We shall soon see how long it takes before this balloon also bursts.

The worrying takeaway from the polling data would be that a majority of Americans are willing to pull back on our historic leadership role in defending the interests of the West, because of domestic concerns. This attitude could threaten future foreign-aid appropriations, a budget item that Americans routinely exaggerate as a share of all federal spending. More importantly, it could also threaten defense spending.

The super-committee of 12 House and Senate members have but a few weeks to come up with a plan to cut at least $1.2 trillion from the estimated federal deficits for the next 10 years, or automatic cuts will be applied to both military spending and domestic programs.

With more than $400 billion in defense cuts already enacted, another hit of $600 billion more over 10 years would, in the opinion of most defense analysts, seriously impact our ability to project American power and defend American interests abroad. With Republicans trying to avoid tax increases to cut the deficit, and Democrats dead set against relying only on social spending cuts to address the deficit reduction target (especially from their precious entitlement programs), failure by the super-committee, and the automatic imposition of the cuts to both social and defense spending seem more and more likely.

What we are seeing is the dribbling away of Americas leadership role in world affairs.

Leading from behind and on the cheap seems be the near-term future for our role abroad.

Richard Baehr is the co-founder and chief political correspondent for the American Thinker, and is a visiting fellow at the Jewish Policy Center.

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