WASHINGTON — On Monday night, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will spar over foreign policy in the final presidential debate before the Nov. 6 presidential election. But with most polling focused almost exclusively on voters' views of the economy and other domestic issues, little has been said about where Americans stand on foreign policy issues. Here's a look at the public's take on international matters.
AN OBAMA STRENGTH
Obama's handling of foreign policy in his first term has generally earned him higher approval ratings than his handling of the economy, and most campaign polling has shown the president with an edge over Romney as more trusted to handle international affairs going forward. Results vary, however, based on which aspect of foreign policy is at the heart of the poll question. The most recent Associated Press-GfK poll in September found Obama with a six-point edge over Romney on "protecting the country" among those most likely to vote, and a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Obama held a 10-point lead over Romney as the one more trusted to handle "international affairs." The Pew Research Center found a narrower divide on which candidate would make "wise decisions about foreign policy," with Obama at 47 percent and Romney at 43 percent.
OVERALL OUTLOOK: TURNING INWARD
With the nation wrapped up in its economic problems in the last four years, it's no surprise that fewer Americans favor U.S. involvement in other countries' problems. The biggest shift on this question since the last years of George W. Bush's term in office, however, has come among Republicans.
A Pew Research Center poll this spring found that 83 percent of Americans felt the U.S. should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home. That's the highest share saying so since the mid-1990s. In 2007, only 67 percent of Republicans said the U.S. should concentrate more on problems at home, compared with 87 percent of Democrats. The partisan gap has narrowed since then, with more Republicans (86 percent) than Democrats (80 percent) saying the U.S. should focus more on domestic concerns.
LIBYA ATTACK PROMPTS PARTISAN GAP
In an October 12-14 Pew Research Center poll, Americans were divided on the Obama administration's handling of the situation in Libya, with Republicans expressing sharply negative views. The poll found 35 percent approved, 38 percent disapproved and 27 percent were unsure. Narrowing that only to those who paid close attention to the investigation of the attack there, the take was far more negative for the president. In that group, 52 percent disapproved while just 36 percent approved. Republicans were most likely to say they were following news on the investigation, and 86 percent of them said they disapproved of Obama's handling of the situation. Democrats who were following closely mostly approved (70 percent), independents mostly disapproved (59 percent).
GROWING SUPPORT FOR TOUGHER CHINA TRADE POLICIES
About half of Americans say they favor tougher economic policies toward China, according to a Pew Research Center poll in early October, a shift from 2011 and a trend in public opinion that could benefit Romney, who says he favors tougher trade policies with the nation. Overall, 49 percent said the U.S. should get tougher with China rather than try to strengthen relations with the country, up 9 percentage points from a March 2011 poll. The shift in opinion comes largely among independents (from 30 percent saying get tougher last year to 47 percent this year) and Republicans (a shift from 54 percent support for tougher policies to 65 percent), while 53 percent of Democrats say they favor developing stronger relationships with China.
CONFLICT IN THE MIDDLE EAST: LESS INVOLVEMENT FAVORED
The Pew Center's polling shows that almost two-thirds of Americans say the U.S. should be less involved in leadership changes in the Middle East. Just 23 percent want the U.S. to take a larger role in those conflicts. At the same time, the poll finds at least one exception. Most Americans would rather see the U.S. take a firm stand against Iran's nuclear program than to avoid military conflict.
RUSSIA: MIXED VIEWS
Romney has singled out Russia as an enemy of the United States, and the public generally takes a negative view of the country's former Cold War foe. A survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund in June found that 42 percent of Americans held a favorable view of Russia, down six points from the previous year. The same survey showed Americans were split on whether the U.S. and Russia could cooperate, with 48 percent saying the two nations shared enough common interests that they could cooperate, and 43 percent saying their interests were so different that cooperation is impossible.
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