Editor’s Note: this is a guest post by Progressive Policy Institute president Will Marshall, which we are publishing as part of the intra-Democratic debate over President Obama’s national security policies, and the recent Democracy Corps analysis of the popularity of those policies.
When Democrats splintered over an unpopular war a half-century ago, Republicans became by default the national-security party. According to a new Democracy Corps poll, however, Democrats have pulled even with their rivals on matters of defense and foreign policy. This closing of the national-security confidence gap is the strongest sign yet that America is entering a new progressive era.
After all, Democrats’ “soft on defense” image played a key role in driving millions of blue collar voters (as well as a small but influential band of Cold War liberals later called neoconservatives) into the GOP’s arms. With the possible exception of race, no issue did more to perpetuate the Republican near-stranglehold on the White House—which began in 1968 and seems to have ended in 2008.
The new poll finds that the public strongly approves of how President Obama is managing the security dilemmas he inherited – so much so, in fact, as to erase many (though not all) of the public’s lingering doubts about his party. If that trend holds, it will be the political equivalent of dismantling the last megaton warhead in the GOP’s once fearsome arsenal. The only catch, of course, is that the president’s policies must actually succeed.
Still, Americans clearly welcome Obama’s thoughtful and nuanced approach to challenges of enormous complexity. According to Democracy Corps, 64 percent of the public approves of the President’s handling of security issues. Apparently, Vice President Dick Cheney’s campaign to convince Americans that Obama is making them more vulnerable to terrorism isn’t getting much traction. Not only do voters believe Obama is making the country safer, but (by a whopping 22-point margin) they give him higher marks on national security than President Bush.
More worrisome for the president than the GOP’s boilerplate attacks, however, is growing restiveness on his left. The White House could hardly ask for a better foil than Cheney. But anti-war activists and civil libertarians are part of Obama’s political base, and many feel disappointment or even betrayal by decisions he’s made that seem to continue the main thrust of Bush’s policies.
In characteristic fashion, Obama confronted such criticism head-on this week in a major speech at the National Archives. While affirming his constitutional responsibility to keep Americans safe, Obama was at pains to describe the ways his policy differs from Bush’s – banning torture, closing Guantanamo, strengthening military commissions, and seeking new legal authority to detain terrorists. He described his approach as a via media between the “anything goes” policy of Bush and Cheney and the absolutist claims of civil-liberties groups demanding totally transparent legal procedures and due-process rights for terrorist suspects.
The speech underscored Obama’s political challenge: convincing independent and moderate voters that he and his party can keep Americans safe while at the same time mollifying liberal critics of Bush’s “war on terror.” To this end, the policies he outlined were carefully calibrated to combine pragmatism and principles of democratic accountability. But in a sense, Obama’s progressive critics are right: in some respects, he is winning the wider public’s trust not by radically changing his predecessor’s policies, but by promising to execute them more deftly and with greater awareness of the big picture of American values and interests.
Iraq offers a good example. The president has essentially ratified the troop-withdrawal timetable that Bush negotiated (or perhaps more accurately, was forced to negotiate) with the Iraqi government. That withdrawal won’t be completed until the end of 2010, and even then the U.S. will leave a large force – 50,000 troops – for counterterrorism and training missions. Though Obama has always favored a residual troop commitment, it doesn’t sound much like Obama’s campaign pledge to “end this war – now.” But 67 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s stance, even as many fear that sectarian violence will flare up again as U.S. combat forces depart.
A 73 percent majority of the public supports Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan by sending 17,000 more U.S. troops there, along with more support personnel from NATO allies. Here again, however, there’s a cleavage between mainstream opinion and the president’s own base. Democrats express strong doubts that the administration has a clear military mission in Afghanistan.
The same faultlines are evident when it comes to Obama’s approach to the conflict formerly known as the war on terror. Many civil libertarians are disappointed that Obama has continued the Bush surveillance program; failed to repeal the Patriot Act, refused to publish the so-called “torture photos” of CIA interrogations; declined to support prosecution of the authors of the torture memos; and decided to use military tribunals to try some terrorist suspects. Perhaps most controversial was the President’s announcement last week that he will seek new legal authority to detain indefinitely those suspected terrorists who cannot be tried and pose a potential danger to the U.S.
On one key security issue – stemming nuclear proliferation – Obama has broken entirely with the Bush approach. While it is likely that most Americans would see his rhetorical goal of building “a world without nuclear weapons” as somewhat utopian, they strongly support the thrust of his policy, which is to negotiate mutual cuts in the arsenals of the nuclear “haves” to reinforce efforts to discourage nuclear programs in hostile “have-nots” like Iran.
The public heartily approves of Obama’s masterful efforts to refurbish the American “brand,” so tarnished during the Bush-Cheney years. He gets top marks (68 percent approval) for “improving America’s standing in the world.”
Finally, the Democracy Corps poll highlights two critical challenges remaining for Democrats as they work to restore their credibility on national security. The first is to answer public doubts – which even a plurality of Democrats share – about the party’s ability to act decisively in a crisis. This probably reflects a lingering ambivalence among progressives about the utility and morality of using force.
The second challenge is to close an 18-point disadvantage on the critical question of “ensuring a strong military.” Although the nation’s economic problems have taken center stage lately, Americans clearly continue to be worried about war, terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Although some congressional Democrats have been critical of President Obama’s proposed increase in military spending (alongside some dramatic cuts in expensive weapons systems), there is little appetite in the country at large for cutting the defense budget. On this issue, as on security in general, Democrats ought to follow the lead of their Commander in Chief.