After years of retrenchment in the wake of two costly wars, a new USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll finds that Americans increasingly are open to a larger U.S. role in trying to solve problems around the world.
The public remains conflicted over just how much the United States can and should do to address global challenges. But the initial shifts in public opinion could make it easier for President Obama to order more muscular options in striking Islamic State terrorists in Syria and Iraq. If the trend continues, it could help shape the 2016 campaign to succeed him.
"This runs counter to this conventional wisdom that the public is isolationist," says Bruce Jentleson, a former State Department adviser in the Obama administration who is now a professor at Duke and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "It's not trigger-happy, but it's also not totally gun-shy."
In more problematic findings for the White House, the nationwide survey also shows broad dissatisfaction with Obama's handling of crises in Russia, Iraq and the Middle East. A 54% majority, including some of his most reliable supporters, complain the president is "not tough enough" in his approach to foreign policy and national security issues.
The poll of 1,501 adults, taken by landline and cellphone Aug. 20-24, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
In the survey, 39% say the United States does too much in helping solve world problems; 31% say the U.S. does too little. That reflects a significant change from less than a year ago, when in a previous Pew Research Center poll Americans by an overwhelming 51%-17% said the U.S. did too much.
A 34-percentage-point gap in November 2013 has narrowed to 8 points now.
Among Democrats and independents, the percentage saying the U.S. does too little has jumped by about 10 points. The increase is even more striking in the GOP. In November, about one in five Republicans said the U.S. did too little; now nearly half do.
"There's more challenges in the world; it's getting worse," Angela Chramer of Birmingham, Ala., said in a follow-up interview. The 51-year-old video producer, who was among those surveyed, says growing problems demonstrate the need for the United States to show leadership. "If we pull back, somebody worse takes over. That goes in the Middle East and that goes everywhere."
'WE CAN'T BE EVERYWHERE'
To be sure, the difficult legacies of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make many Americans wary of the costs and consequences of getting involved in distant places.
"We can only do so much," protests Bob Schuhart, 51, a high-school custodian from Oshkosh, Wis., who was called in the poll. "We can't be everywhere. We can't be a policeman for the whole world. We have to take care of our own, too." He faults former president George W. Bush in particular for leading the nation into war "under false pretenses."
But Schuhart also worries that the world has become "more stressful" during Obama's tenure "because he threatens and says he's going to do something, but he never really backs it up."
The perception that Obama is "not tough enough" is growing. Early in his presidency, in June 2009, a 51% majority of Americans called his approach on national security issues "about right." Now a 54% majority doubt his toughness, including a significant share of traditional supporters: one-third of Democrats, four in 10 African Americans and just over half of women.
A generation after the euphoria over the end of the Cold War, and 13 years after the trauma of the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans once again see the world as increasingly perilous. Two-thirds of those surveyed, 65%, say we live in a more dangerous world than several years ago; just 7% call it a safer one. In recent weeks, headlines have relayed the brutal beheading of an American journalist by the Islamic State, the spread of the deadly Ebola virus across west Africa, the human costs of the on-again off-again war between Israelis and Palestinians, and the ominous threat of armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
After focusing mostly on such domestic concerns as the economy and health care during his first term, Obama has found his second term defined in large part by the need to respond to a series of foreign crises — from a flood of children from Central America illegally crossing the southern border to the collapse of Iraqi military forces that the U.S. had spent a decade training.
Next week, the president is scheduled to attend a NATO summit in Wales after a stop in the Baltics to meet with the leaders of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia — a region unnerved by Russia's annexation of Crimea. Next month, he is slated to convene a United Nations Security Council meeting in New York focused on the emerging threat that terrorists drawn to Syria could pose in the United States and Europe.
His aides have been forced to defend him against a barrage of criticism that he has been buffeted by events, not in command of them, and that he has failed to demonstrate a consistent, persuasive approach to foreign policy and national security. That impression could damage his standing and hurt Democratic candidates in the November elections.
"People look at a lot of things that happen in this town through a political lens," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters this week, rejecting the critique. "That's an understandable pursuit. That's just not the way that we look at them." He said Obama is "worried about the safety and security of the American people, and that's what he's focused on."
That said, Obama's approval ratings on foreign policy, a strength early in his tenure, now are even lower than his dismal rating (39% approve, 55% disapprove) on handling the economy. Just 37% now approve of his policy toward Israel and 35% his approach toward the strife between Russia and Ukraine.
His standing on Iraq, an issue that helped propel his nomination for the White House in 2008, is now the worst of his presidency: 35% approve, 56% disapprove.
Dustin Counterman, 31, a construction worker from Angola, Ind., says Obama's decisions on Iraq, even when they were fulfilling promises he made during the campaign, may have made things worse. Obama "backed out of it, like people wanted, I guess, yet it almost seems like we have to go back now," he says. "I think he backed out too early."
IN OBAMA'S DEFENSE
The president's defenders argue he has been forced to repair damage done to international relations during the Bush administration and to deal with an unyielding Republican opposition in Congress.
"Under the circumstances, with the House and the Senate composed as they are, he's doing the best that he can," says Lisa Schreiber, 46, a communications professor at Millersville University in Lancaster, Pa., who was called in the poll. "One of the most important things for me is our relationship with other countries, because we depend on them, and from the beginning he's done a good job of maintaining relationships with other countries."
But Duff Watrous, 62, a real estate agent from Long Beach, Calif., says Obama's failure to exercise strong leadership over the past six years, even when it would put him at odds with Congress and other countries, has worsened some of the problems he faces now. "I think this administration's attempt to withdraw America from the world scene has created a vacuum that emboldens evil people," he says. "That's most apparent with Syria and Iraq, but it's also a factor with Hamas."
In a follow-up interview, Watrous rejected the argument that Obama's approach in Iraq and elsewhere has been consistent with American public opinion. "It's the responsibility of a good leader to have a vision about what's needed, not just what his constituents want," he says.
In the poll, just 15% of Americans say the United States is playing a more important and powerful role as a world leader today compared with 10 years ago, the lowest percentage in the four decades the question has been asked. Nearly half say the U.S. is playing a less influential role.
What are the biggest threats to the United States?
Now at the top of the list are Islamic extremist groups like al-Qaeda, cited as a "major threat" by 71%. Nearly as many, 67%, name the Islamic militant group in Iraq and Syria known as the Islamic State, a force that has gained notoriety among Americans only in the last few months.
The sense that Islamic extremists pose a danger to the U.S. — and the horrific video of American journalist James Foley being executed by IS captors — may have bolstered support for U.S. airstrikes against targets in Syria and Iraq. Almost exactly a year ago, national surveys showed Americans opposed strikes in Syria by more than 2-1. But a USA TODAY/Pew Poll earlier this month found Americans backing airstrikes in Iraq by 54%-31%.
That could be another indication of a new willingness to engage in the world.
In July, Americans said by 14 percentage points that the United States had no responsibility to do something about the violence in Iraq. In August, by a narrow edge of 3 points, they said the U.S. did have a responsibility to act.
A RUSSIAN REVIVAL
Islamic militants are only one of a series of challenges seen as major threats to the United States. In the poll:
• The nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea were cited by 59% and 57% as major threats.
• Concern about Russia and tensions with its neighbors spiked, to 53% now, after a decade in which that had ebbed.
• The rapid spread of infectious diseases from country to country was named by 52%.
• And just under half of those polled, 48%, cite other threatening developments: China's emergence as a world power. Global climate change. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
"China's advancing; Russia's advancing; Islamic terrorism — these radicals are expanding their influence over the world," Chramer says, ticking through a list of global perils. "It's going to take a long, long time to come back from this."