Obama wins high marks for foreign policy

The president's high approval ratings in a new poll suggest that Americans appreciate his cooperative approach to world affairs.

Robert Frazier/The Christian Science Monitor/FILE
Pollster: Andrew Kohut is director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

That hand President Obama extended to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and the opening he’s initiated towards Cuba aren’t souring Americans on their new president. In fact, they may be boosting his already high approval ratings.

In a new poll marking Mr. Obama’s first 100 days in office, Americans give the president even better scores for foreign policy than the high marks he achieves on domestic issues. That’s according to a survey released today by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

“Ironically, he gets somewhat better ratings in foreign policy and terrorism than he does on the economy and issues like the budget and deficits,” says Andrew Kohut, the Pew center director, noting that in the campaign it was the opposite.

Obama’s 61 percent approval rating on foreign policy – just above the 60 percent approval he achieved on the economy, or the 57 percent approval on handling terrorism – suggests real support because it was achieved after a month of high-profile travel to Europe, Mexico, and the Caribbean, Mr. Kohut says.

Americans are supportive of how Obama has balanced US interests and taken into consideration the perspective of foreign governments, the poll shows. Some 57 percent say Obama is striking the right balance in pursuing US interests, while 56 percent say they approve of his taking into account the interests and views of US allies.

In the poll, released at a Monitor breakfast in Washington today, a slight majority of the public – 51 percent – has come around to Obama’s decision to close the Guantánamo military detention facility for suspected international terrorists, up from 46 percent in February.

The new poll does not ask specifically about Obama’s approach to foreign governments and leaders that are not allies – and who range from thorns in the side to outright strategic opponents. But the survey was conducted through Tuesday, Kohut notes, and thus includes Obama’s trip to Latin America that ended Sunday – and that included the president’s widely covered and good-hearted exchanges with Mr. Chavez.

Some Republican congressional leaders criticized Obama for employing such a jocular approach to a leader who has taken his anti-US campaign around the world. Some supporters in Obama’s own party even said the US president should have defended America more when Chavez presented him with a book on 500 years of European and American exploitation of Latin America.

Obama addressed the question of support for his foreign-policy approach with reporters at Sunday’s Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. He said the American people had dismissed the idea that dialogue with adversaries is weakness in the election. That view reflects surveys taken during the campaign, which showed Americans ready for a new tone in America’s relations with the world.

A poll by the Better World Campaign and the United Nations Foundation in February 2008 showed Americans rejecting a “go it alone” approach to the world, with 81 percent favoring working closely with – and sharing burdens with – allies. Nearly 70 percent expressed concern about the impact of America’s poor image abroad, and supported “restoring international trust in America.”

Such numbers, together with the Pew poll, underscore how, despite a focus on the economic crisis, Americans are paying attention to foreign policy – and supporting Obama’s handling of it.

“It’s not just a matter of people not paying much attention, because he started out with a deficit there,” Kohut says, noting that foreign policy was Obama’s “weak spot” in the presidential campaign.

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