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The paradox of Americans disapproving of a policy they approve of

It's difficult to understand why the more Obama pursues a popular foreign policy, the more public disapproves of his foreign policy.
A man walks past near remains of burnt vehicles belonging to Iraqi security forces in the northern Iraq city of Mosul on June 13, 2014.
A man walks past near remains of burnt vehicles belonging to Iraqi security forces in the northern Iraq city of Mosul on June 13, 2014.
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll showed a broad, bipartisan consensus: Americans agree with President Obama that sending U.S. ground troops into Iraq is the wrong way to go. A plurality of Americans also share the White House's skepticism about the value of military air strikes.
It was curious, then, that the exact same poll shows most American disapproving of Obama's handling of U.S. policy in Iraq, even though he's doing what the public wants.
It's not the only national poll highlighting this paradox of Americans disapproving of a policy they approve of.

Dissatisfaction with President Obama's conduct of foreign policy has shot up among both Republicans and Democrats in the past month, even though a slim majority supports his recent decision to send military advisers to Iraq to confront the growing threat from militants there, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. This gets a little confusing. What course of action to Americans prefer? The same course of action endorsed by the president. So they approve of Obama's handling of the situation? Of course not; most actually disapprove, and the critical majority is growing.

As we discussed last week, this keeps happening. As the crisis in Ukraine intensified in April, for example, polls showed Americans wanted the United States to impose sanctions on Russia and offer non-military aid to Ukraine. That's exactly what Obama did, which is why it was odd when public support for the president's handling of the crisis dropped to low levels.
Most Americans support multi-party diplomatic talks with Iran. And withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. And not intervening militarily in Syria's civil war. And getting Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl back. And helping take the lead of international efforts to combat the climate crisis.
Yet, the more the president pursues a popular foreign policy and national-security strategy, the more the public rejects his foreign policy and national-security strategy.
Why is that?
I've been kicking around various possible explanations. David Leonhardt has argued that Americans agree with the president's policies, "but don't approve of his leadership." That sounds like a distinction without a difference. Saying a president has pursued sound and popular policies with insufficient "leadership" is a bit like telling a server she's doing a fine job waiting tables, but she's just not wearing enough pieces of flair.
Another possibility is the Affordable Care Act problem -- people say they disapprove of a policy they really don't know much about. "Obamacare" polls quite badly, until pollsters ask respondents to evaluate what's actually in the ACA, at which point the reform law enjoys overwhelming support. Something very similar may well be happening on foreign policy -- folks don't like the president's approach, but they like what's in the president's approach.
But my new favorite explanation for the paradox is what I call the "Americans like what works" problem. When it comes to the crisis in Iraq, for example, the public is glad the war is over and is equally certain we shouldn't go back. At the same time, however, the public is likely discouraged by an intensifying crisis, with terrorists and their insurgent allies taking more control over parts of Iraq.
In other words, I suspect many Americans want us to do nothing in Iraq and want Iraq to be stable. To this extent, Obama's disapproval numbers may be a reflection of the evening news -- Iraq's a mess, so the public has negative impressions of the president's policy. After all, the argument goes, if Obama's policy was worthy of approval, Iraq would be in better shape.
This is the latest installment in the "public attitudes aren't always rational" series.