Most national polls in recent months tend to offer roughly the same results, to the point that it’s tough be surprised by new data. With minor fluctuations, we know that President Obama isn’t popular, while Congress fares much worse. Republicans enjoy less support than Democrats, but are likely to make gains in the 2014 midterms anyway.
On the whole, the American electorate isn’t happy with the economy, foreign policy, immigration, or the nation’s direction in general. Most national polls show the public in a mood that’s somewhere between dour and sour.
But general trends notwithstanding, some recent polling has been quite surprising. In particular, if asked to predict Americans’ attitudes towards U.S. military intervention in Syria and Iraq, I would have guessed that the war-weary nation would prefer to stay out of another conflict in the Middle East.
That’s not the case. Rachel noted on the show last night that a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 40% of Americans support airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, while an additional 34% support airstrikes and the possible use of American ground troops.
The wording of the Washington Post/ABC News poll is a little different, but 71% of respondents nevertheless said they support U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, while nearly as many, 65%, support U.S. airstrikes in Syria.
Not only is this unexpected, it’s worth emphasizing that public support for U.S. airstrikes in Syria was much lower a year ago, when President Obama weighed military intervention against the Assad regime – plans that were scuttled when Obama struck an agreement that rid Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles.
So what changed? As President Obama prepares to present his vision for a national-security offensive, where is all this support for military intervention suddenly coming from?
Peter Beinart made a compelling case that ISIS’s brutal murders of two journalists had a deep effect on public attitudes.
For all the denunciations of Obama’s Ukraine policy this summer by Beltway hawks, Republican congressional candidates barely mentioned it. Up until very recently, public opinion was strongly “Jeffersonian.” Americans generally told pollsters that their government was too militarily entangled overseas already.The beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff have changed that. Republican Senate candidates in Alaska, Georgia, and New Hampshire are now tying their Democratic opponents to Obama’s supposed lack of a strategy against ISIS. Democratic Senators Bill Nelson and Tim Kaine are urging Congress to authorize the president to bomb the Sunni extremist group in Syria and Iraq. Last September, when YouGov.com asked Americans whether they supported air strikes “against Syria,” only 20 percent said yes. Last week, by contrast, when it asked whether Americans supported strikes “against ISIS militants in Syria,” 63 percent said yes. […]What’s causing this Jacksonian eruption is the sight of two terrified Americans, on their knees, about to be beheaded by masked fanatics. Few images could more powerfully stoke Jacksonian rage.
With this in mind, it’s worth emphasizing a fascinating observation from Mark Murray: in the new NBC/WSJ poll, the story of the beheadings “had the highest penetration of any news event” in any similar poll in five years.
I’ve seen many compelling arguments about media coverage pushing Americans to support war, and I have no doubt that there’s something to this. There have been a handful of voices urging caution – making the case that airstrikes in Syria may not have the desired effect, intervention is unnecessary, and ISIS poses no real threat to the United States – but it’s fair to say those warnings have been largely drowned out.
But the media’s coverage was similar a year ago, and Americans were reluctant to intervene in Syria. Not too long ago, the media coverage of events in Libya was similar, and the public wasn’t exactly keen on that mission, either. Republicans, who’ve helped drive much of the polling shift, were every bit as skeptical of Obama’s handling of foreign policy before as they are now, the difference being, GOP voters are suddenly enthusiastic about intervention.
The murder of James Foley and Steven Sotloff seems to have changed the calculus.