What's behind Americans' negative attitude toward Obama on Ukraine?

As the Obama administration responds to Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, the latest CBS News Poll shows that more Americans disapprove (46 percent) than approve (38 percent) of the way President Obama is handling the situation between the two countries. But when looking more closely at the public's views on the Crimean situation, the negative attitude toward the president handling of the situation raises questions.

Fifty-six percent of Americans approve of the sanctions enacted against Russia by the U.S. and other European countries, the first concrete action the Obama administration has taken in response the annexation. Nor does it seem most Americans think the Obama administration should take some other more aggressive steps - 65 percent of Americans do not think the U.S. should provide military aid and weapons to Ukraine. What's more, majorities of Americans think the situation in Crimea is both beyond the control of the U.S. (57 percent) and that the U.S. does not have responsibility to do something about it (61 percent). What, then, do Americans disapprove of, and why?

Although Americans tend to pay less attention and have less knowledge of events overseas than domestic concerns, lack of knowledge does not seem to be the main factor. Sixty-nine percent of Americans have heard or read at least something about the situation between Russia and the Ukraine, including more than a third who say they have heard or read a lot (36 percent). More importantly, those who have heard or read a lot about the situation are more likely (56 percent) to disapprove of the president's handling of the situation than Americans overall (46 percent).

Not surprisingly, partisanship probably plays a role. There is a clear break along party lines when it comes to how the president is handling the situation between Russia and Ukraine: 59 percent of Democrats approve of Mr. Obama's handling of the situation, while 69 percent of Republicans disapprove. But more independents also disapprove (48 percent) than approve (35 percent) of the president's handling of the situation between Russia and Ukraine, so party identification is not the only factor.

Disapproval of the president's handling of the situation between Russia and Ukraine may also be a reflection of disapproval of his overall job performance. In the same poll, 50 percent of Americans said they disapprove of the job Barack Obama is doing as president, while just 43 percent approve. Americans have held a net negative rating of Mr. Obama's job performance since September of last year, and they similarly express a net negative view of his handling of the economy, health care, immigration, Afghanistan, and foreign policy in general.

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In fact, the only measure in the most recent CBS News Poll that Americans approve of is his handling of terrorism (53 percent approve). Reaction to the president's handling of the situation between Russia and Ukraine is likely part of this overall trend.

But there may be another factor as well: American pessimism about the scope of U.S. power and its standing in the world. Fifty-nine percent of Americans think the U.S. is less powerful as a world leader than it was 10 years ago, and the percentage that thinks that the United States' image in the world has gotten better since Mr. Obama became president has been declining steadily - from 59 percent in April 2009 to just 32 percent today. This pessimism can perhaps be seen in Americans' views of sanctions against Russia: while 56 percent approve of sanctions, 58 percent don't think those sanctions will be very effective.

How Americans view America's power as a world leader is directly related to how they feel about Russia and Ukraine: Most Americans who think that U.S. power has increased in the past year both approve of Mr. Obama's handling of the situation between Russia and Ukraine (58 percent) and think the U.S. can do something about it (53 percent). In contrast, most Americans who think U.S. power has declined both highly disapprove of Mr. Obama's handling of the situation (63 percent) and think the situation is beyond the control of the U.S. (61 percent).

For many Americans, their disapproval of the president's handling of the situation between Russia and Ukraine may not stem from a belief that he is unwilling to do more, but because they don't think that he is able to.

  • Fred Backus

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