washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama’s Nuclear Initiatives: Public Supports Means If Not Ends

As the administration’s Nuclear Security Summit takes place in Washington this week, CNN has a new look at public opinion on a variety of issues related to nuclear weapons policy. And it’s safe to say that there is strong public support for what the President’s is proposing, if not always for the utopian-sounding goals he has articulated.
The latter problem is not new. In a May 2009 Democracy Corps survey that found remarkably strong support for Obama’s foreign policy and national security leadership–strong enough, in fact, to all but erase the traditional “national security gap” between Democrats and Republicans–Obama’s stated goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons got a decidedly lukewarm reaction, with 60% of Americans agreeing that “eliminating all nuclear weapons in the world is not realistic or good for America’s security.”
The DCorps question on this subject combined skepticism about a nuclear-weapons-free world with opposition to the idea on national security grounds. But CNN separates the two issues, and while respondents split right down the middle (with significant differences based on age, as over-50s who remember the Cold War tend to be negative) on the desirability of eliminating nuclear weapons, the percentage thinking this can actually happen has dropped from one-third in 1988 to one-fourth today.
But the big difference between May 2009 and today in terms of nuclear weapons policy is that the President is now taking concrete steps to address the “loose nukes” issue, to build-down nuclear weapons in conjunction with Russia, and to strengthen the international non-proliferation regime (in conjunction with efforts to isolate Iran’s defense of its nuclear program). And CNN finds strong support for Obama in every tangible area, even if his long-range goals still produce skepticism.
Most importantly, 70% of Americans–including 68% of independents and even 49% of Republicans–think the Senate should ratify the START Treaty with Russia, despite the predictable charges of “weakness” towards Obama that have been emanating from many conservative circles since the treaty was signed. With a two-thirds Senate vote being required for ratification of the treaty, that’s probably just enough public support to keep Republican defense hard-liners (and/or obdurate Obama-haters) from launching a big Senate fight.
Moreover, by giving high-profile attention to the “loose nukes” issue, Obama is tapping a deep well of public anxiety about the possibility of nuclear terrorism. By a 7 to 1 margin, respondents to the CNN poll said “preventing terrorists from getting nuclear weapons” should be a high priority than “reducing nuclear weapons controlled by unfriendly countries.” One of the great ironies of the Bush years was that his administration constantly promoted fears about nuclear terrorism while making nuclear security a very low priority, even in bilateral relations with Russia. Dick Cheney in particular treated truculent and unilateral behavior towards potential adversaries as the sole means of preventing nuclear terrorism. By unpacking nuclear security from other issues and making it a focus of bilateral and multilateral initiatives, Obama is linking diplomacy with a national security concern that Americans care about passionately.
Public support for the president’s nuclear weapons policies will get its strongest test beginning next month with the beginning of a scheduled review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As Steven Clemons notes in an excellent overview of Obama’s “nuclear wizardry” at Politico today, that’s where the rubber will need to start meeting the road in terms of the administration’s efforts to round up the world community for an effective united front towards Iran’s nuclear program. But it’s clear the president’s nuclear initiatives are off to a very good start despite generic conservative carping.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.