The Foreign Policy Debate: Pew Research Findings on Public Opinion

In the final presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla., on Oct. 23, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney faced off on foreign policy. Bob Schieffer of CBS News moderated the debate and formulated the questions. What does the public at large think about the issues addressed? Here’s what our surveys have shown.

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  1. LIBYA

  2. Schieffer opened the debate on the subject that prompted one of the sharpest exchanges during the second debate -- the handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
  3. Our national survey conducted Oct. 12-14 found that:
  4. 38% disapprove of the Obama administration’s handling of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, while 35% approve. About a quarter (27%) express no opinion. The administration gets lower ratings from those who followed news about investigations into the embassy attack very or fairly closely. Among this group, 36% approve of the administration’s handling of the situation and 52% disapprove.
  5. The survey finds particularly large partisan differences in attentiveness to specific aspects of the Libya situation. Republicans (47%) are far more likely than Democrats (19%) to say they heard a lot about reports that the U.S. embassy in Libya had requested more security prior to the attacks but did not receive it; about a third of independents (32%) heard a lot about this. And 41% of Republicans say they heard a lot about incorrect statements by the administration that there were protests outside the embassy at the time of the attacks; that compares with just 17% of Democrats and 28% of independents.
  6. ARAB SPRING AFTERMATH

  7. The discussion of the attack in Libya broadened to a more general discussion of the events in the Middle East since the beginning of the Arab Spring nearly two years ago. Our mid-October survey found increasing skepticism among the public that the Arab Spring will lead to lasting changes.
  8. While skeptical, a majority of the public believes it's important to have a stable government in the region. 
  9. There is little partisan difference on this question; both Republicans and Democrats place a higher priority on stability. Independents also prioritize stability over democracy in the Middle East (62% vs. 27%).
  10. The survey also found that Americans want the U.S. to draw back when it comes to its involvement in the region.
  11. More than six-in-ten (63%) say they think the U.S. should be less involved with changes of leadership in the Middle East, compared with just 23% who say the U.S. should be more involved.
  12. As far as political ramifications, our poll conducted after the first presidential debate found that neither Romney or Obama had a significant advantage when it came to who the public thought could better handle the unrest in the Middle East.
  13. SYRIA

  14. Schieffer turned the subject to Syria. He asked this question: 
  15. The war in Syria has now spilled over into Lebanon.  We have, what, more than a hundred people that were killed there in a bomb.  There were demonstrations there, eight people dead.  Mr. President, it’s been more than a year since you saw -- you told Assad he had to go.  Since then, 30,000 Syrians have died.  We’ve had 300,000 refugees.  The war goes on; he’s still there.  Should we reassess our policy and see if we can find a better way to influence events there, or is that even possible?
  16. Our polling in March found little public support for getting more involved in Syria, particularly with military force.
  17. IMPORTANCE OF REBUILDING U.S. AT HOME

  18. Several times during the debate, the candidates linked the United States' ability to effectively conduct foreign policy to rebuilding the U.S. economy at home. Our values survey, conducted April 25-May 10, found that Americans want government to focus more attention on problems here at home while still putting value on an assertive America abroad. In a separate survey released in July found that the public’s concerns rest more with domestic policy than at any point in the past 15 years.

  19. Currently, 83% agree that “we should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home.” That is up 10 points since 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and the highest percentage expressing this view since 1994. Meanwhile, the number agreeing that “it’s best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs” has fallen from 90% to 83% since 2009, while the percentage disagreeing has doubled, from 7% to 14%.
  20. There has been a noticeable shift among Republicans on this issue in particular.
  21. Republican support for focusing greater attention on problems at home has risen sharply since George W. Bush left office. Between 2007 and 2009, the percentage of Republicans favoring more of domestic focus increased 12 points (from 67% to 79%). In the current survey it has risen to 86%, as high as it has ever been in a political values survey. By contrast, the percentage of Democrats saying the U.S. should focus more on problems at home fell between 2007 and 2009, from 87% to 79% and has remained about the same since then (80%). The current survey marks the first time that a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats says that the nation should focus less on problems abroad and more on problems at home.
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