January 28, 2013

Is Obama Out of Step with America on Foreign Policy?

By Bruce Stokes, Director of Pew Global Economic Attitudes, Pew Research Center

Special to CNN

U.S. President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address is now history. It has been labeled “progressive,” “partisan,” “one of the best ever” and “pedestrian.” Whatever the positive or negative take on its content, the speech was largely about America’s domestic concerns. The limited internationalism highlighted in the speech lacks significant support from the American people, especially those who got him reelected.

The economy, jobs and the budget deficit dominate public concerns in the United States, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. More than eight-in-ten Americans think Washington should pay less attention to problems overseas and more attention to issues at home. And such isolationist sentiment has increased 10 percentage points in the last decade.

People outside the United States looking to Obama’s speech as some kind of signal of Washington’s foreign policy posture over the next four years should appreciate that Obama’s rhetoric may have reflected his aspirations but not necessarily the priorities or the will of the American people.

An inaugural address is generally reserved for statements of broad principles and themes. It is not the venue for detailed policy proposals, either foreign or domestic. These will come, if anywhere, in the president’s State of the Union speech February 12.

Nevertheless, it is notable that Iran, China and the Israeli-Palestinian troubles – all looming international challenges for the United States – were never mentioned by the president.

Afghanistan – America’s longest running war ever – was referenced obliquely: “a decade of war is now ending.” This scripted applause line reflected the fact that 60 percent of Americans want the United States out of that war-torn nation as soon as possible.

President Obama did promise: “We will respond to the threat of climate change.” This is music to many ears outside the United States. In 2009, foreigners had high hopes that the newly elected president would take steps on climate change: 81 percent of French, 76 percent of Germans and 59 percent of Japanese expected Obama to take action. But by 2012, only 27 percent of French, 23 percent of Germans and 22 percent of Japanese thought he had.

But before they get their hopes up again, people outside the United States need to realize that only 28 percent of Americans say dealing with global warming should be a top priority for president Obama and Congress this year. That includes just 38 percent of the president’s own party and just 32 percent of people under the age of 30 and 29 percent of women, both groups whose support helped win Obama his second term.

The president also raised expectations for those who one day hope to emigrate to the United States: “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.”

But the recent political debate within the United States has largely been about what to do with those who are already in the country illegally. And even then, only 39 percent of Americans say dealing with the issue of illegal immigration is a top priority. Even among Hispanics, a key Obama constituency, just 31 percent make this issue a top priority.

On broader geo-strategic issues, President Obama promised that: “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe. And we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad.”

But only 41 percent of Americans say strengthening the military is a top priority. And that includes just under a third of the president’s own party members and only 29 percent of those under the age of 30, the future American electorate.

Moreover, Americans show relatively low support for NATO, America’s oldest and arguably most important alliance. Just 51 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, compared with 70 percent of Poles, about two-thirds of French and Germans, and 62 percent of Britons who hold it in high regard.

The U.S. president’s inaugural address is a speech heard and read around the world, and is interpreted as a sign of America’s intentions going forward. To separate lofty ambitions from more practical realities, it needs to be interpreted in the context of U.S. public opinion.