Obama, Don’t Take This Public Opinion Poll Too Seriously

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The Pew Research Center recently published yet another poll on the public’s opinion of President Obama’s foreign policy activity, entitled “Fewer Americans Think Obama Respected on World Stage.” It’s interesting to see how Americans view our own involvement in world politics, but ultimately, these polls are pointless. They mean very little. There was another one in February from Gallup that stated, “Fewer Americans Think Obama Respected on World Stage.” What these polls ultimately tell us is both narrow and, in ways, not as important or surprising as you might think.

Sampling Error and Phrasing

First of all, public opinion polls can sometimes be a bit like predicting the weather before satellites: unreliable. Are they measuring what they say they’re measuring? Are the questions phrased in such a way that they might result in biased answers? The Pew Research Center clearly says that this is the case in an added note at the end, but Gallup’s poll is especially guilty of this. Looking at the questions posed by Pew, most seem to come across as more objective than Gallup’s; “respect” is a rather difficult term to define. However, both polls give Obama’s name a place of honor in their phrasing, meaning they’ll inevitably find out as much about America’s views of Obama as foreign policy.

And what about sampling error? The sampling error is plus or minus 4 percent for the Gallup poll. Given that it records those who believe Obama is not respected by leaders of other countries at 53 percent and those who believe he is respected by foreign leaders at 41 percent, 4 percent is rather a lot. That could be 41 and 49 percent, or 45 and 53 percent depending on how the error is applied. Four percent is 33 percent of the difference between the two polling results. For the sample group of moderate to liberal Republicans, the Pew Research Center had a possible error margin of 10.8 percent, though only 2.9 percent for the total sample size.

Is This News?

Americans have had consistently negative approval ratings for Obama in the polls for a long while now, and that reflects most areas of his presidential activity, including foreign affairs. Furthermore, Gallup’s poll shows exactly what you’d expect it to show: Partisan opinion on Obama remains as you think it would, with Democrats more positive, Republicans more negative, and independents somewhere in between. With all of the above, Gallup shows worsening outlooks on Obama’s position internationally, just as all parties have polled decreasing job approval for him.

News that Obama does poorly in the polls isn’t news anymore, and unfortunately, these polls are both rather tied up with the president. For example, Pew says that “54 percent say Obama’s approach on foreign policy is ‘not tough enough,’” which doesn’t directly deal with the issues, but more with a perception of the president. Likely it was referring to Obama’s stance against Putin over Ukraine.

Can You Find Ukraine on a Map?

Speaking of the issues: When it comes to international politics, Americans are noted for their lack of understanding on major geopolitical items. While examining the public’s perception can be important for understanding how public opinion may influence politicians, Obama hardly seems concerned about his public face at this point. If he were a senator facing down midterm elections, it would be a different matter. The president’s recent speech on unaccompanied minors at the border is an insight into his frustration with American public opinion.

He mentioned that Americans had their attention drawn to the humanitarian crisis of underage immigrants, but that this one highly publicized event was not a representative example of immigration problems for the nation as a whole. You could hear his impatience with the strong public response, one diverging from statistical reports and based on gut reactions to the evening news.

To a point, Americans are guilty of this failure to know the facts about headlines. Plenty of people responded to Gallup’s poll by saying they were paying “very” or “somewhat” close attention to events in Ukraine a few months back. But only one out of six could find Ukraine on a map, according to a Washington Post study, which also found that the more aggressive respondents’ preferences were toward intervention, the less likely they were correctly place Ukraine on a map.

Ultimately, it’s questionable whether the president should be considering opinion polls when looking at his options overseas. Listening to economic and market advisers? Absolutely. Working with Congress and considering a balance of national and international interests with American recovery needs? Definitely.

Worrying about a Gallup or Pew Research Center poll quite possibly answering a different question than advertised (i.e., reflecting sentiment on Obama more so than foreign affairs) is not a top priority. If Obama doesn’t care — and you, quite possibly, shouldn’t care — then perhaps this is just one of those polling topics that we should nudge to the side for now in lieu of other news.

Follow Anthea on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

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