Americans Want to Pull Back From World Stage, Poll Finds
Nearly Half Surveyed in WSJ/NBC Poll Back Anti—Interventionist Stance That Sweeps Across Party Lines
Americans in large numbers want the U.S. to reduce its role in world affairs even as a showdown with Russia over Ukraine preoccupies Washington, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds.
In a marked change from past decades, nearly half of those surveyed want the U.S. to be less active on the global stage, with fewer than one-fifth calling for more active engagement—an anti-interventionist current that sweeps across party lines.
The findings come as the Obama administration said Tuesday that Russia continues to meddle in Ukraine in defiance of U.S. and European sanctions. Pro-Russian militants took over more government buildings in eastern Ukraine, while officials at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said satellite imagery showed no sign that Russia had withdrawn tens of thousands of troops massed near the border. (Read five takeaways from the poll.)
The poll showed that approval of President Barack Obama's handling of foreign policy sank to the lowest level of his presidency, with 38% approving, at a time when his overall job performance drew better marks than in recent months.
Mr. Obama defended his diplomacy-first approach at a news conference Monday in the Philippines, the last stop on a four-nation tour through Asia. He said those who called for a more muscular policy hadn't learned the lessons of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq.
"Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we've just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?" he said. "And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?"
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said, "After a week of rhetoric from the administration, I had hoped we would have responded to Russia's blatant violations…with more than just a slap on the wrist."
The poll findings, combined with the results of prior Journal/NBC surveys this year, portray a public weary of foreign entanglements and disenchanted with a U.S. economic system that many believe is stacked against them. The 47% of respondents who called for a less-active role in world affairs marked a larger share than in similar polling in 2001, 1997 and 1995. (See poll results over time about America's role in the world.)
Similarly, the Pew Research Center last year found a record 53% saying that the U.S. "should mind its own business internationally" and let other countries get along as best they can, compared with 41% who said so in 1995 and 20% in 1964.
"The juxtaposition of an America that wants to turn inward and away from world affairs, and a strong feeling of powerlessness domestically, is a powerful current that so far has eluded the grasp of Democrats and Republicans," said Democratic pollster Fred Yang, who conducts the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. "The message from the American public to their leaders in this poll seems to be: You need to take care of business here at home."
The poll results have broad implications for U.S. politics, helping to explain, among other developments, Mr. Obama's hesitance to have the U.S. take the lead in using military force in Libya, the reluctance of Congress to authorize force against Syria and the ascent as a national figure of Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), a potential 2016 presidential candidate who has called for a restrained foreign policy.
Support for Mr. Obama's handling of Russian intervention in Ukraine slipped to 37% in the new poll from 43% in March. But at the same time, a plurality agreed with the statement that Mr. Obama takes "a balanced approach" to foreign policy "depending on the situation," with smaller shares rating him as too cautious or too bold.
Melissa Western, a graphic designer from Chandler, Ariz., who participated in the poll, called Mr. Obama's foreign policy "lackadaisical."
"I'm not saying go to war, but I feel like he has a lot of empty threats," said Ms. Western, an independent who voted for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. "He's hard to take seriously."
Dora Lovett, a Democratic poll respondent in Ozark, Ark., said Mr. Obama should focus more on domestic issues and less on events abroad. "I just feel like he does more for them than he does for us," she said, citing foreign aid as an example.
While Mr. Obama's standing as a foreign policy leader has slipped, the poll found his overall job approval rose to 44% from March's record low of 41%.
But the president's standing remains perilously low just six months before the midterm congressional elections, and the poll was riddled with warning signs for his party. Support for his signature health-care law is improving slightly, a result that comes after the announcement that eight million people had picked insurance plans under the law. Still, support for the law remains weak, with 46% saying it is a bad idea and 36% saying it is a good one. "Clearly, the president has better news from his health-care law. But in general, that better news has still left people, by double-digit margins, saying it is a bad idea," said Mr. McInturff, the GOP pollster.
The public is deeply divided over the benefits of international trade and globalization, a challenge for Mr. Obama as he tries to shepherd major trade deals through a reluctant Congress.
The poll found that 48% viewed globalization as bad for the U.S. economy, with 43% calling it a good development. Asked whether they preferred a congressional candidate who argued that free trade was a positive force or one who called it a negative force, 46% favored the pro-trade candidate and 48% the anti-trade candidate.
Opinions on trade and globalization correlated more with income and education than with party affiliation. People with lower incomes and education tended to be the most skeptical of those forces, with support rising in tandem with income and education. "There are huge chunks of Republicans who would be looking at and supporting anti-free trade candidates, and huge chunks of Democrats who are pro-free trade," Mr. McInturff said, adding that both parties face a difficult task in finding their footing on the issue.
For all the poll's warnings to Democrats about the 2014 midterm elections, it offered some good news for the party in its early glances toward the 2016 presidential election. The poll found that potential Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is viewed significantly more positively than two potential Republican contenders.
Mrs. Clinton was viewed positively by 48% of those surveyed and negatively by 32%. Both Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Paul were viewed more negatively: Mr. Bush was viewed favorably by 21% and unfavorably by 31%. For Mr. Paul, opinion split 23% to 25%.
—Colleen McCain Nelson and Rebecca Ballhaus contributed to this article.