Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Presidents in step with public opinion

If President Obama decides to launch major air strikes in Iraq and Syria and give arms to Kurdish forces in Iraq, he'll have support from American public opinion, a new poll says. The numbers are quite dramatic.
Today, 71 percent of all Americans say they support airstrikes in Iraq — up from 54 percent three weeks ago and from 45 percent in June. Among those who say Obama has been too cautious, 82 percent support the strikes; among those who think his handling of international affairs has been about right, 66 percent support them.

Nearly as many Americans — 65 percent — say they support the potentially more controversial action of launching airstrikes in Syria, which Obama has not done. That is more than double the level of support a year ago for launching airstrikes to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons.

Support for arming Kurdish forces opposing the Sunni insurgents in Iraq also has risen over the past month, from 45 percent in August to 58 percent in the new survey.

I have long believed that public opinion can provide a permissive consensus for military actions which presidents can seize upon if they wish. Obama may not want to get involved, but the political risks are much less than if opinion were more begative.

An important historical example can be found in Franklin Roosevelt's conduct before Pearl Harbor. Of course, FDR wanted to help those fighting Hitler.But he was constrained by various laws and by substantial public opposition.

As I've written:

[His] strategy, as described by his chief speechwriter, was “to keep one step ahead of public opinion, not to be stampeded into one direction or the other, and to encourage full debate before taking too drastic action.”

            In fact, as early as January, 1941, the American people agreed (48% to 42%)  that we were already in the war. By June the figures on that question were 79.1% to 10.9%. By July, they supported convoying ships as far as Iceland, 75%-15%. By September they were ready to have U.S. ships shoot on sight (62%) rather than waiting until they were first attacked (28%). By early October, they favored 72%-21% arming U.S. merchant ships—a change in the law approved by Congress a few weeks later. Perhaps most significantly, by mid-September, the American people overwhelmingly [71% to 22%] agreed that if the United States is to be free, the Nazi government must be destroyed.
When presidents are in step with public opinion, they can do much.

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