Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Prime-Time Addresses Have Moved Public Opinion Before, But Obama's Starting From FAR Behind On Syria

All five men have delivered prime-time TV addresses regarding imminent military action from behind the desk above, though none have faced a Congress as skeptical, or an American public more unified in opposition.

In less than 12 hours, President Obama will deliver a national address in prime-time in an attempt to rally the country, and congress, behind a possible military strike against a chemical-weapons yielding Middle Eastern dictator.

But it's far from the first time a commander-in-chief has pep-talked the nation in advance of (or as often the case, just after) the commencement of major military endeavors. In fact, Presidents have spoken to the nation in televised addresses designed to coincide with imminent overseas hostilities no less than nine times across the last five Presidents over the last 30 years.

Unfortunately for Barack Obama, his "rally-to-the-flag," pre-war address will have two dubious distinctions.

First, unlike President Reagan's military outings in Grenada and Libya, or George Bush Sr.'s Panama and Iraq Invasion, or Clinton's Somalia, Sudan and Kosovo bombings, or George W. Bush's wars in Afghanistan & Iraq, or Libya in 2011, President Obama is tasked with selling a phenomenally unpopular mission in Syria.

Furthermore, though each of the last four Presidents have seen worse job approval ratings than Obama is currently seeing at some point in their respective presidencies, none of them were so unpopular as he is now on the eve of a potential military strike against another country.

Consider the table below, which documents Barack Obama's job approval rating since the August 21, 2013 Syrian WMD attack that got this mess started, as well as support vs. opposition for military action in Syria since the same date:

The characters beside pollster identification in the table on the right above corresponds to survey question wording. Please feel free to ask me for any particular poll's question wording.

Over the last 2-3 weeks, Barack Obama has averaged a 45/50% job approval rating, while support for the proposed military operation in Syria has been anemic, at 32/52%.

What's worse? Over the last 7 days, Obama's average job approval rating has dropped to 44/51%, while opposition to engagement surged upwards (averaging a 30/60% support/oppose rating).

And as the table below indicates, those job numbers, as well as public sentiment regarding a Syria military operation, stack up quite poorly in comparison to 7 previous overseas endeavors: Grenada in 1983, Libya in 1986, Panama in 1989, Iraq in 1991, Aghanistan/Sudan in 1998, Kosovo in 1999, and Iraq in 2003:

Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and both President Bush's all enjoyed much higher standing with the American public at the time of their military outings, and all saw much wider support for the engagement at hand.

This is the reality that Barack Obama is facing today as he attempts to convince a war-weary nation that a strike in Syria is in American's national security interest. His job approval is at a net 26 points worse than George W. Bush's before the March 20, 2003 invasion of Iraq, and a net 41 points worse than his father's on the eve of the 1991 invasion. Support for the operation itself is a net 50 points lower than the '03 Iraq War was on March 20, 2003, and 56 points lower than support for the '91 Iraq War on January 16, 1991

No matter how you slice it, the numbers look incredibly bleak. If the polls are accurate, not only does Obama have to win over the support of all undecided Americans tonight, but he has to change a LOT of minds as well.

Problem is, his current poll standing doesn't make that entirely likely. Presidents have moved the needle of public opinion before with prime-time speeches, but never to the extent Barack Obama would need to reach parity on Syria, and certainly not with as low a public opinion of their job performances as he currently has.

Take, for example, the near-universally popular 1991 Persian Gulf War. President George H.W. Bush, already enjoying sky-high job approval numbers and strong public support for a clash with Saddam Hussein, saw public sentiment shift even further in his favor after his national address from the oval office on Wednesday night, January 16, 1991, just two hours after the war began.

The characters beside pollster identification in the table on the right above corresponds to survey question wording. Please feel free to ask to me for any particular poll's question wording.

From the time pollsters began frequently surveying attitudes towards an invasion of Iraq (around December 1990), until Bush's prime time address on January 16, 1991, Americans supported the Iraq War 61/32%. In the two weeks following the speech, support/opposition jumped to 77/19%, or a net 29 points. Bush also saw a decent job approval bump, from 63/27% in the month prior to his speech, to 81/13% in the three weeks following. But it's important to keep in mind, Bush was popular, and enjoyed broad support for war, the night he delivered his televised address.

The same was true for his son, President George W. Bush, on Monday night, March 17, 2003, as he delivered his famous "48 hour" ultimatum from the Oval Office  for Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq or face the full might of the US Military.

The characters beside pollster identification in the table on the right above corresponds to survey question wording. Please feel free to ask to me for any particular poll's question wording.

Like his father, George W. Bush was already quite popular as he issued his ultimatum to Hussein in 2003 (thanks to lots of positive goodwill from the still recent September 11th terrorist attacks), and enjoyed broad public support for an attack on Iraq (61/33%). But polls taken on March 17, immediately following his evening address, and in the week that followed, showed a 17 point spike in support to 70/25%.

But perhaps more so than the two examples above, Kosovo in 1999 serves as an example of a popular president's ability to persuade through use of the ultimate bully pulpit.

On Wednesday night, March 24, 1999, President Clinton spoke to the American public about why U.S. forces were participating with NATO in the bombing of military targets in Kosovo. Despite sporting an impressive average 65/32% job approval rating at the time, Americans were roughly split (48% in favor, 44% against) US involvement in Kosovo.

The characters beside pollster identification in the table on the right above corresponds to survey question wording. Please feel free to ask to me for any particular poll's question wording.

Support for action in Kosovo lept to 56/35% in the month following Clinton's address, a net 16 point improvement from prior to March 24, 1999.

The televised presidential addresses delivered in concurrence with military strikes by Ronald Reagan in 1983 and 1986, as well as George Bush Sr. in 1989 and Bill Clinton in 1998, don't lend themselves to comparison to Obama's speech tonight as well as the three examples discussed above. Unlike them, these endeavors were unknown to the public at large prior to their execution. But still, as you can see, they all enjoyed much broader support than Syrian polling has indicated to date, whether or not the public was kept in the loop prior to them being carried out.

The bottom line is that saying Barack Obama has his work cut out for him tonight would be an understatement. We've not undertaken a single military commitment this unpopular since the Vietnam War turned deeply sour with public opinion in 1970.

And even if Obama's much-vaulted skills as a gifted orator did sway public opinion, it may not be met with the success of Bush Sr's 1991 address or Bill Clinton's 1999 address. Those circumstances were quite different from Obama's today, as Bush Sr. was already popular himself, and already dealing with a largely supportive public of the Iraq War. Bill Clinton's job ratings were high too during Kosovo, and he was able to utilize that to shift a split public decidedly in his favor.

Obama doesn't get the benefit of either of those fact patters. His political standing is at one of the worst of his presidency, and the American public is very much against a strike on Syria, and growing even more opposed by the day.

There's now even some question as to what the President's speech will be about, given a muddled message made muddier yesterday after Obama proposed the idea that a strike in Syria would be put on hold if they relinquished their chemical weapons, making much of the above fairly irrelevant.

But if the Syrians don't oblige the Americans or the Russians, Obama may be ordering a strike on Syria without more than just the support of Congress. He could be the first President in decades to start a war so unanimously opposed by the public from the start. 

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