Voters give Obama poor marks on national security

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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“It’s three A.M. and your children are safe and asleep. But a phone is ringing in the White House. Something’s happening in the world … Who do you want answering the phone?” Three years ago, when Hillary Clinton ran that ad in the Democratic primary, voters’ answer was Barack Obama. But according to a Rasmussen poll released Sunday, when it comes to issues of national security, Americans may be having buyer’s remorse.

A week after President Obama’s speech to the country justifying military intervention in Libya, just 37 percent of likely voters said Obama was doing a ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ job, while more – 40 percent – rated his effort ‘poor.’ These numbers have worsened for the President since last week, when 43 percent gave him positive ratings on national security and only 34 percent said he was doing a poor job.

Respondents were asked to rate Obama’s job performance on national security as either good, excellent, fair, or poor. Those four categories can be seen as measuring the intensity of voter sentiment. Those who say he is doing excellent feel more strongly about his positive performance than those who feel his performance is merely ‘good.’ In the same way, those who see him as doing a ‘poor’ job are very displeased, while those who say his performance is ‘fair,’ though unwilling to give him positive marks, are similarly unwilling to condemn him.

Looking at it in that way, the results are somewhat unpleasant for the President. 40 percent rated Obama’s performance as ‘poor,’ the worst possible option given. Those who feel strongly that he is doing well are fewer in number. Combined, the number of people who gave him both the best and the second best rating is still less than the number who gave him the worst possible rating. Those who feel Obama is doing badly clearly feel he is doing really badly. Those who feel he is doing well seem to feel less strongly on the matter.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is enjoying her highest favorability ratings yet. Now Obama’s Secretary of State, Clinton is viewed favorably by 66 percent of voters, and unfavorably by a mere 31 percent, according to a Gallup poll released last week. Clinton has been one of the most prominent voices associated with the crisis in Libya and issues in the Middle East, a fact that seems to have some interesting ramifications.

The issue is with the President himself and the perception of how he is handling the crisis, which voters seem to see as distinct from how other members of his Administration are handling it.

Comparing Clinton’s favorability ratings with voters’ ratings of the President’s performance on national security may seem like mixing apples and oranges. But the role of the Secretary of State is to advise the President on foreign affairs, which means that Clinton’s favorability rating is inextricably linked to her perceived performance on issues of foreign affairs and national security.

That said, the comparison is not perfect. Gallup takes a random sample of Americans, while Rasmussen specifically polled likely voters, making it somewhat more indicative of how sentiment could play out in an election. Another disclaimer is that these favorability numbers for Clinton were taken last week, when voter confidence in Obama’s ability to handle national security issues was higher. It is possible that something happened this week that shook confidence in the ability of the Administration as a whole to handle national security issues, which would mean Clinton’s favorability numbers might have taken a hit between then and now.

In that same Gallup poll, however Obama’s favorability ratings were far lower than his Secretary of State’s – the President’s approval rating is based on more than just national security. In fact, in a poll released two days later, Gallup found that Obama receives significantly higher ratings for his handling of foreign affairs (47 percent disapprove, 46 percent approve) and the situation in Libya (44 percent each approve and disapprove), than he does on domestic affairs, like the economy, the deficit and healthcare, where significantly more disapprove. So his low favorability numbers still seem to have more to do with his handling of the domestic affairs.

But look at it this way. Favorability ratings are likely based on some approximation of the respondent’s perception of several things, primarily the person’s handling of various aspects of their job and their likeability. Let’s say, arbitrarily, 20 percent is based on likeability for both Clinton and Obama. That other 80 percent, for Obama, is a composite of a lot of things: the economy, health care, foreign affairs, national security, his speech on Libya, and likely many more. Clinton’s job description is more monochromatic, so her favorability rating probably reflects, for the most part, how well voters perceive she performs in that specific arena. So handling of foreign affairs and national security would be weighted far more heavily in Clinton’s favorability ratings than in Obama’s, and that would mean that voters have substantially more confidence in Clinton’s handling of foreign affairs and national security than in Obama’s handling of those same issues.

At the moment, at least, the person voters want answering the phone seems to be Hillary Clinton.