Is Obama out of step with America on foreign policy?
January 28th, 2013
12:31 PM ET

Is Obama out of step with America on foreign policy?

By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.

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.”

More from CNN: What's in Senate immigration plan?

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.


soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Joseph McCarthy

    While Barack Obama's foreign policies are politically correct, they are equally wrong. We need to quit taking over foreign countries like Iraq and Afghanistan because of their resources and quit starting wars in order to make a profit overseas. In other words, we need to return to Isolationism which is a great idea whose time has come!

    January 28, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Actually Obama has plenty of leverage in his second term. Although he wants to be more active abroad, he has to heed the people's advice. War fatique is wide-spread and he himself is not a hawk by nature, therefore he had no problem to end the war in Afghanistan.

      January 28, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Reply
      • bill o'rights


        Not a hawk?

        Ask Obama, Jarrett and Brennan about their 300+ drone strikes.

        Since you know so much about Obama, tell me who his male mentor was during the seven most impressionable years of his childhood. Or, perhaps, tell me from whose living room his political career was jumpstarted?

        Better still, please share with me the political ideology embraced by both of Obama's parents, his brother and uncle, along with all of his best friends throughout college, his mentors and other colleagues, namely:

        Bill Ayres, Bernadine Doern, Alice Palmer, Saul Alinsky, Vernon Jarrett, Bernie Sanders, Anita Dunn, Derrick Bell, Jodie Evans, Sam Grahm-Felsen, Gregory Galuzzo, Patrick Gaspard, Jeff Jones, Marilyn Katz, Mike Klonsky, Mike Kruglik, Bea and Frank Lumpkin, John L. McKnight, Saul Mendelson, Abner Mikva, Linda Rae Murray, Zach Pollet, Wade Rathke, Joel Rogers, Quentin Young and Jeremiah Wright.

        Obama is not a pre-2008 Democrat and never was, no matter how you much you try to obfuscate reality.

        Obama's DHS has quietly acquired 1.8 billion rounds of ammunition, 3,000+ armored vehicles and several billion dollars worth of bulletproof, roadside checkpoints.

        Yeah, I'm a nutcase, right? I would be, were it not for the fact that this information has been provided, ad nauseum, for all but the useful idiots to read on the internet–who cling to CNN as their primary news source.

        January 29, 2013 at 3:11 am |
    • lrjrj

      The war for oil or overseas profits was mindless, leftist rant against Bush early on- but it's clear from the beginning this did not happen, nor was it likely to happen. Isolationism isn't possible, nor is it desirable. But economic development should be the primary tool, which may be difficult when the admin and Dem party seem to regard it as a negative here, how could they recommend it abroad?

      January 29, 2013 at 10:21 am | Reply
      • Derek

        In England back in 1215, a lot of people also thought that the Magna Carta was wrong and undesirable which it was not, Irjrj! Like Joseph said, Isolationism is the greatest idea since the granting of the Magna Carta. It worked for over 150 years in which time this country became an economic powerhouse!

        January 29, 2013 at 10:53 am |
      • lrjrj

        Joseph implying Ira & Afghan was for profit or oil – nonsense. Wars are not profitable for anyone, ever, except for overall stability (hoped for) and future econ development. And we don't invade other countries for plunder. That is not at all the same as enabling them to develop their oil industry. Isolationism, as stated, is not possible or desirable. Should be economic objective, not military or foreign policy overreach. Obama's humanitarian approach (liberals only want military to be motivated by this) not any easier, but sometimes necessary. It would be idealistic and nice to stay home- but that's not reality. Should be less frequent and for national security alone, or under very serious humanitarian. We will never have the luxury of staying out of the world bc we are the only country with resources and military to help, which will always be needed.

        January 29, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • JerseyJeff78

      What profit was made in Iraq and Afghanistan?

      January 31, 2013 at 6:59 am | Reply
  2. End The FED

    It doesn't matter what Obama's foreign policy is. It's the FED that controls this country and foreign policy. The FED is a war funding machine that only wins when massive debt is produced. The FED is illegal and evil. We need to end the FED.

    January 28, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Reply
    • Quigley

      Quite true indeed. What you call the FED, I call the M.I.C. which are one in the same. It owns the White House plus 90% of the Congress. That's why we're constantly at war and probably why 9/11 happened.

      January 28, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  3. 100 % ETHIO

    F/P becomes, just a talk show.
    Whomever keep mentioning it becomes, a talk show host.

    Here is what keep happening.
    When Jew keep complaining, Iran is growing.

    As Today, Iran sent Monkey to Space station comes back safe.

    America needs talented and gifted people. It is time America to create friendship with Iran.

    About Iran's Nuke, either both-sides disarm or armed and live peacefully like India and Pakistan.

    Now we know, the Jew spy agents, oversight Iran's growth and jealousy burning them alive.

    Get over it!

    January 28, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Reply
  4. 100 % ETHIO

    Mr. Stokes, you are the Director of economic development, as you stated it above.

    As a Christian, for Almighty God sake, we forgive our past enemies with Almighty God command.
    So, why not forgiving Iran and working with its talented people peacefully, for excellent economic developments.
    We are responsible for future American generations.
    They will have too many true questions, we kept escaping.

    January 28, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  5. Kevin D

    The POTUS seta all policy so it is IMPOSSIBLE for him to be out of step with foreign policy!!! The POTUS may be out of step with what you want foreign policy to be but you are not the POTUS are President Obama is so deal with it.

    January 28, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Reply
  6. nathan j

    I'm doing an essay on foreign policy and i need as much information as possiple please?

    January 28, 2013 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  7. Flotsam

    The article seems out of step with what is actually happening overseas. I certainly don't see Obama getting us entrenched with new conflicts overseas. If anything he adopted a prudent schedule for withdrawal of Iraq and now Afghanistan. He has NOT been a hawk on Iran or at the beck and call of Israel to do their bidding for them. Complete isolationism is never possible considering the global economy and our business interests elsewhere, but for the first time we don't have NEOCONS running the show. About time.

    January 29, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  8. yes

    yes out of step!!!! yes yes yes!!! what a revelation! unless foreign policy is to reduce american, put america in it's place and apologize to our enemies, then hes spot on. Pretty unnerving isn't fellow americans, that our president – our executive and chief, is hostile to US best interests- quite a concept to take in.

    January 30, 2013 at 8:37 am | Reply
    • wjmccartan

      Thank you, yes. We do need to apologize to our so-called "enemies" and quit running things overseas. First of all, the politics of hunger needs to go as well as the obscene butchery brought on by those cursed drones. In short, our foreign policies need to be overhauled.

      January 30, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Reply
  9. Adam

    Obama is hugely out of step in terms of foreign policy. He needs to tell lobby groups like AIPAC to shut up and sit down instead of giving in to pressures for war with Iran that would kill thousands and tossing billions and billions of aid as handouts to Israelis while Americans remain unemployed and the debt crisis looms.

    January 30, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  10. amieholv

    I think he is very naive and he thinks like 60's love child. If we love them they will love us back.

    January 30, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Reply
    • Adam

      Fascinating... I think you're so dense that light bends around you.

      January 30, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  11. matt

    Totally! His administration sucks!

    January 31, 2013 at 12:06 am | Reply
  12. iu yuouo

    fbkgergu wertu owty hugg iui u h hfjk ghou row; f gigy

    January 9, 2014 at 7:30 pm | Reply

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