Don’t Listen to the Polls: Why Obama Has More Room for Foreign Activism Than Polls Suggest

By / 8.8.2014

It’s become a truism that Americans have turned so far inward that they will not tolerate national security initiatives that carry a risk of major costs or casualties. War-weary after Iraq and Afghanistan and reeling financially from The Great Recession, the public wants U.S. leaders to focus more at home and shoulder far fewer burdens abroad—and certainly no more American “boots on the ground.”

It’s the dominant media narrative, and it’s mostly wrong. Recent shifts in public opinion on national security don’t mean President Obama needs to retreat from America’s global leadership responsibilities. Public opinion on national security works differently than on domestic issues, where average citizens have distinct and vote-motivating preferences about things like tax rates and health care plans. On national security, voters mostly just want policies that work—which they mostly judge after the fact. Indeed, with voters mainly focused on events at home rather than foreign affairs, the White House in many ways has more latitude to act abroad.

It may sound odd coming from a professional pollster, but what this means is that, on national security, we should all pay less attention to the polls.

Read the full policy brief.