President Obama gestures during a press conference in Saint Petersburg on Sept. 6, at the G20 summit. Opposition to U.S. airstrikes against Syria is surging, according to a USA Today/Pew Research Center poll released Sept. 9. (Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Opposition to U.S. airstrikes against Syria is surging, a USA Today/Pew Research Center Poll finds, despite a White House campaign to convince Americans it is the right course ahead.
By more than 2-1, 63 percent to 28 percent, those surveyed Wednesday through Sunday say they are against U.S. military action against the Syrian regime for its reported use of chemical weapons against civilians. In the past week, support has declined by a percentage point and opposition has swelled by 15 points, compared with a previous Pew Research poll.
As President Obama prepares to address the nation Tuesday, he can see damage the issue is doing to his own standing. He gets the lowest ratings of his presidency on handling foreign policy, and Americans by 2-1 disapprove of his handling of the situation in Syria. His overall approval rating has sagged to 44 percent to 49 percent, the first time it has fallen into negative territory in well over a year.
“This is a signal moment,” says political scientist Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota. “On the one side is the kind of leadership of an historic order. On the other side is a fairly deep doubting about American power — and the power of this president.”
Obama repeatedly has asserted he has the authority to order the airstrikes even though he decided to seek congressional authorization first. Despite record low ratings of Congress, those surveyed say by 2-1 that Congress should have the final authority for deciding whether military strikes should be launched.
Congress hasn’t been convinced. A USA Today Network survey of senators and representatives released Monday showed just 44 lawmakers in favor of military strikes and 149 against. A majority of both the House and Senate were undecided.
In the new nationwide poll, a solid majority, 54 percent to 35percent, says Obama hasn’t explained clearly why the United States should launch military strikes. The appraisal is more negative than the one Americans gave former president George W. Bush in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
That presumably is one reason Obama chose to schedule interviews with all the major television networks Monday and to deliver a nationally televised speech from the White House Tuesday night.
“Our survey last week suggested that the administration still had an opportunity to make its case for airstrikes, as one out of every four Americans had not yet formed an opinion on the issue,” says Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center. “Despite their efforts, the new poll finds that nearly all of that uncertainty has turned into opposition. Not only have Republicans turned sharply against airstrikes in Syria, but Obama has not won over support from Democrats, who continue to oppose the idea by a wide margin.”
Democrats oppose airstrikes by 53 percent to 35 percent, Republicans by an overwhelming 70 percent to 21 percent. Independents also are opposed, by 66 percent 28 percent.
Among all those surveyed, close to half, 45 percent, strongly oppose the airstrikes. Just 16 percent strongly favor them.
The telephone poll of 1,506 adults has a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points.
The survey provides what could be a road map for what arguments are persuasive — and which are not:
■ Six in 10 agree the United States must act to show the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.
■ Fifty-four percent say the United States has a moral obligation to stop violence against civilians.
■ By 50 percent to 45 percent, they don’t see the situation in Syria as a threat to the security of the United States.
■ The argument that the United States will lose credibility around the world if it doesn’t act is rejected by most, 56 percent to 39 percent.
What’s more, three in four Americans say the airstrikes are likely to make the situation in the Middle East worse. Six in 10 say there are “no good options” for the United States in how to deal with Syria.