Three Problems With Obama's Poll Numbers: Divisiveness, North Korea, and Nukes

The president dreams of a nuclear-free world while North Korea's launching rockets.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

President Obama's European tour seems to be generating big positives for him. The April 2-4 Gallup poll has his approval rating at 62 percent among the more than 1,500 U.S. adults surveyed. The April 1-2 Newsweek poll has his job approval at 61 percent among the just 1,000 adult respondents. Pollster Scott Rasmussen, who surveyed 1,500 likely U.S. voters, has Obama's job approval at 53 percent—and has about a third of those (36 percent) saying they "strongly approve" of the way he is performing his job as president.

In a way, this is not really surprising. Americans like to see their president being greeted with praise and adulation overseas. It makes us feel good about ourselves as a country; the president, in this case Obama, is an extension of ourselves. But for all that, there are a couple of danger points on the horizon.

First, as the Pew Research Center points out in a recent publication, President Obama is the most polarizing chief executive of the last 40 years, at least at this point into an administration. The 61-point gap between how Democrats view Obama's job performance and how Republicans view it is larger, by 10 points, than it was for George W. Bush—who at this point into his term was still dealing with the issue of his election being legitimate—remember "selected, not elected?" The good news for Obama is that more than half of self-described independents—57 percent—are sticking with him.

Danger points two and three are closely connected—and may have a far greater effect on independents than any of the issues that have thus far dominated the debate: North Korea's launch of what appears to have been a long-range missile and the president's call in Prague for a nuclear-free world, coming within hours of each other.

As a general rule, independents tend to be moved by national defense issues more than other kinds of domestic policy if they feel the security of the United States is somehow threatened. Rasmussen also found that 57 percent of Americans want to see a military response to the North Korean launch.

The call for a "nuclear-free world" harkens back to the "nuclear freeze" period of the late 1970s, a time when the United States was perceived as weak on the world stage. And, while the president's call for a reduction in the nuclear stockpile is laudable, the fact is that it is already lower than at any time since the Eisenhower administration thanks to the efforts of George W. Bush.

Resuming discussion of a "nuclear-free world," especially in a way that blames the United States—"As a nuclear power—as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon—the United States has a moral responsibility to act," Obama said in Prague—does not exactly invite good feelings here at home. And to do so at a time when North Korea, which is just about nobody's friend, looks like it has ratcheted up its delivery capabilities, rather than appear statesman-like, could just wind up being reckless.

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