Several recent polls show that Americans increasingly disapprove of President Barack Obama's handling of foreign policy, but not of his specific policies. Photographer: Junko Kimura-Matsumoto/Pool via Bloomberg
Several recent polls show that Americans increasingly disapprove of President Barack Obama's handling of foreign policy, but not of his specific policies. Photographer: Junko Kimura-Matsumoto/Pool via Bloomberg

A Catch to Dan Drezner for making sense of the apparently goofy survey results showing that President Barack Obama’s approval ratings on foreign policy have been tanking, even though people seem to approve of his specific foreign policy choices:

So what’s going on? It’s not rocket science — it’s the difference between policy outputs and policy outcomes. A policy output is, say, the decision to send military advisers into Iraq, or the decision to rule out the use of combat troops there. A policy outcome is what actually happens on the ground — in the case of Iraq, a worsening sectarian war. The thing about American foreign policy is that even the best foreign policy outputs do not necessarily translate into the best outcome, because the United States, for all its superpowery-ness, is not actually an omnipotent deity. In the case of Iraq, there are a lot of other variables at play besides U.S. foreign policy outputs: Maliki’s poor leadership, the neighboring situation in Syria, the Kurdish desire for an independent state, Gulf funding of ISIS and Iran’s sway over the Maliki regime.

Part of this probably has to do with foreign policy itself: American voters have even less expertise in this area than they do in others, and almost certainly have far weaker opinions -- but they might be just as willing to answer survey questions.1 Mostly, however, it’s just the nature of large electorates: results are what really counts.

Dan doesn’t mention it, but there is an important lesson for presidents (and incumbent politicians in general): When it comes to things that voters will notice, it’s almost always a better idea to choose the policies you think will work rather than the policies that poll well (let alone the even more foolish option of choosing policies that do well in focus groups). Of course, that’s especially true early in a term, when the policies will have a chance to be enacted, implemented, and have time to work. But for the incumbent party, it’s generally true even late in the term. Because, as these results show, most people don’t have particularly strong views on most issues.

The big exception would be for policy areas in which one’s party has strong commitments. Presidents are understandably very reluctant to violate those, either for a more popular overall position or for something that promises to work better. Foreign policy, fortunately for most presidents, isn’t an area in which many such commitments are found. So the best course is usually to figure out what will work best, and try to do that.

Also? Nice catch!

1 Or at least those who are willing to answer polling questions in the first place may be equally willing to stay on the phone, even when the topic turns to something they’re less even less informed about and have even less strong opinions on.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.