Why Republicans can win the ISIS debate on anti-Obama bluster alone

These polls perfectly sum up the GOP's strategy

A number of polls released in recent weeks suggest that a rapid shift is underway in American attitudes on foreign intervention, especially in the case of the Middle Eastern terrorist organization know as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). A recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows that 54 percent of Americans believe the country does too little abroad, pinning much of the blame on the president's flaccid approach to foreign affairs.

So what is it about ISIS that has captured the American imagination? A CNN/ORC International poll released last week indicates that seven in 10 Americans believe the group possesses the resources to attack the United States, a remarkable turnabout in public sentiment for a terrorist organization that was virtually unknown just a year ago.

Dig a little deeper into the data, however, and an important distinction becomes apparent. Though disapproval of the president's handling of foreign policy has increased across the board, a marked shift in the attitudes of registered Republicans accounts for much of the flip in public sentiment. Republicans, according to Pew, are now twice as likely as Democrats to say that America does too little abroad; a major shift in one year's time.

"Republicans have become even more likely to say we do too little in the world," said Alec Tyson, Senior Researcher at the Pew Research Center. This shift, according to Tyson, is more consistent with characteristically hawkish Republican attitudes on intervention and muscular U.S. foreign policy.

It's these same Republicans — likely voters who take the time to answer a pollster's phone call — who GOP candidates are counting on to turn out in droves to secure the House and possibly seize the Senate for the party this fall. But there are signs that Independents and Democrats are fertile ground as well.

While terrorism remains, according to Gallup data released last week, a relatively low priority for most Americans as compared to issues like the economy and immigration, its mention has increased to levels unseen since 2010.

Reacting to this changing national mood — and the potential political consequences for his party — President Obama attempted in his national address last Wednesday to assuage American concerns about the threat posed by ISIS, and to emphasize that the group would be dealt with just as other jihadists in far-flung places have been.

This comparison, as CBS News' John Dickerson noted, was deliberate:

Indeed, if a strategy of airstrikes, intelligence sharing, and the reinforcement of local forces proposed by Obama to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS sounds familiar, that's because it closely resembles the counterterrorism strategy implemented for most of his presidency — a time when he enjoyed more favorable ratings on the subject.

And the numbers support Obama's thinking. While recent polls indicate a greater appetite for American intervention, there's little evidence to suggest that the country is ready for another protracted land war in the Middle East. In pledging to bomb from high above and limit American sacrifices, Obama is in fact giving the American people precisely the foreign policy they've been asking for all along. So why the dip in approval?

The problem isn't the method, but the messenger. Obama — buttressed by two presidential election victories — had until recently benefited from a kind of political consensus on the merits of scaling back American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These moves, like many of the president's national security measures, have consistently mirrored public opinion. Recent polls, however, suggest that the president remains dogged by lingering doubts about his "toughness" and acumen.

And that's the tightrope Republicans are easily walking. Real solutions to defeating ISIS would require a huge commitment — think many years and "tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars, according to New America Foundation Fellow Brian Fishman. That's more than almost anyone in the U.S. is willing to accept.

But for now a tenable plan for victory can wait. Republicans have been given a political win-win — they can tepidly support Obama's policies on Capitol Hill while lambasting his style. As Georgia Republican Jack Kingston recently put it, when asked about a vote on the authorization of force, "We like the path we're on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him [President Obama] so long."

Republicans will likely continue to test ISIS out in their campaigns — just so long as they can bash the president's judgment without having to offer meaningfully different policies of their own.


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