Throughout the contentious debate between the White House and Congress over the Iran nuclear negotiations, one important piece of the equation has been largely overlooked: American public opinion. If voters were confident that President Obama was striking a good deal with Iran that would prevent Tehran from getting nuclear weapons, he’d have little trouble getting support from the legislative branch.
But the reason the president is facing such bipartisan backlash is that an overwhelming number of voters are deeply worried about the direction of the negotiations. Think about how rare, in these polarized times, mobilizing a veto-proof majority of congressional Republicans and Democrats is for any significant legislation. Yet despite all the distractions, Congress is close to achieving that goal: requiring the administration to go to Congress for approval of any deal.
The administration is so focused on process and protocol in attacking the opposition because it’s a useful distraction from how unpopular the administration’s eagerness to strike any deal with Iran has become.
Consider the polling: In this month’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 71 percent of respondents said they believed a deal would not prevent the Iranians from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Earlier in March, a Fox News poll found that a 57 percent majority believed the U.S. wasn’t being “aggressive enough” in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear program, while nearly two-thirds supported military action as a last resort. In a February Gallup Poll, 77 percent of Americans said they believed Iran’s development of nuclear weapons posed a “critical threat” to the United States.
The one recent outlier was CNN’s survey, which found a surprisingly large 68 percent majority of voters—most Republicans included—supporting negotiations “in an attempt to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” But the phrasing of the question skewed the results. The question assumes that the end result of the negotiation is preventing Iran from getting nukes. But the reason for the growing opposition is that many voters don’t believe the agreement will come close to stopping Iran’s nuclear program, a point that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscored in his congressional address.
(It’s a lesson in how the precise wording of questions can elicit dramatically different results. Another loaded question on the Fox News survey asked if it’s a good idea to allow Iran to get nuclear weapons 10 years from now—an outcome that the critics of a deal believe is likely. A whopping 84 percent called it a bad idea. But looking at the most directly phrased questions, it’s evident that there is clear public concern over the negotiations.)
All of the polling is causing a significant number of Senate Democrats to consider breaking with their president to join Republicans in overriding a presidential veto over the deal. Far from being a bunch of hard-liners or hawks, congressional skeptics of an Iran deal run the gamut from the most liberal senators (Robert Menendez, Ben Cardin, Chuck Schumer) to moderates (Gary Peters, Robert Casey, Joe Donnelly) to the GOP hawks (Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, John McCain).
A senior official with a pro-Israel group said the two senators to watch as bellwethers are Democrats Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, whose voting records are closely aligned with the Jewish state’s interests but who also have national ambitions and represent liberal constituencies that are still deeply supportive of Obama. But the fact that senators from New York and New Jersey—states with the highest concentrations of Jewish voters—could clinch the opposition’s veto-proof majority shows how challenging the administration’s counter-lobbying effort will be.
Recognizing its challenge in persuading the public, the White House has latched onto tangential issues, such as the propriety of Netanyahu speaking to Congress before his election and Sen. Tom Cotton’s open letter to Iran warning the regime that any deal needs congressional approval. But even those issues haven’t scuttled Democratic resistance. Far from a political disaster, Netanyahu’s speech divided Democrats, united Republicans, and underscored the lengths to which the administration was willing to go to overshadow an ally’s message.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s argument ended up being amplified by the nonstop national attention; his critical remarks are regularly referenced in news coverage about the Iran negotiations. After the speech, Gallup found Netanyahu’s favorability in the United States at a still-solid 38 percent approval/29 percent disapproval despite dropping among Democrats; polls showed majorities of Americans disapproving of the process by which he was invited but supportive of the prime minister’s message and right to speak.
Meanwhile, Cotton’s letter was a tactical mistake for Republicans, giving Democrats a reason to rally behind the president even though the GOP’s goal is to win over the remaining wavering Democrats to secure a veto-proof majority. But as a matter of substance, the episode underscored the administration’s chutzpah. Obama crowed to Vice that “for them to address a letter to the ayatollah—the supreme leader of Iran, who they claim is our mortal enemy—is close to unprecedented.” This, even as the president himself secretly reached out to Iran’s supreme leader last fall with a letter urging the country’s cooperation against ISIS in the region, according to The Wall Street Journal.
History has shown that Obama is willing to ignore public opinion to accomplish his goals even when it’s against his own political interest. The ends, in the White House’s view, ultimately justify the means.
When Scott Brown won Edward Kennedy’s deeply Democratic Senate seat in Massachusetts by running against the president’s proposed health care plan, Obama forged ahead with polarizing legislation that is dogging his administration to this very day. Even though his advisers warned him against issuing any executive order on immigration before the 2014 midterms—citing battleground-state polling showing it would be highly unpopular—he pursued it anyway after his party lost nine Senate seats. In his postelection press conference, Obama copped that he cares as much about the views of the people who didn’t vote, rather than citing the decisive rebuke from those who went to the polls to reject the direction he has pursued.
On Iran, Obama’s behavior toward the people’s representatives in Congress is even more dismissive. Knowing how widespread the opposition is in Congress, the administration is looking to bypass the Senate’s role in weighing in on a deal. It’s a position that has alienated him even from usually reliable allies such as Sen. Tim Kaine.
Democrats aren’t opposing the president out of spite. They’re clearly worried that an administration looking too eager to strike a deal with a leading terrorism-sponsoring state could find itself resoundingly rejected by the public—and many of their constituents.
After Netanyahu’s decisive reelection in Israel, administration officials leaked that they were mulling punishing the Jewish state by not vetoing anti-Israel measures at the United Nations, an outcome that would align the U.S. with the Palestinian Authority’s position. This, despite recent Gallup polling showing that only 15 percent of Americans sympathize more with the Palestinian side, with 62 percent backing the Israeli position.
Being so dismissive of public opinion is a dangerous game to play, especially when it comes to foreign policy. For all his mistakes in conducting the Iraq War, former President George W. Bush secured a bipartisan congressional authorization for declaring war against Iraq, working to rally public support in 2003 to win that approval.
Obama views that equation backward: Getting the outcome he wants, and then attacking his opponents for not going along with him. It certainly hasn’t proved to be a healthy process domestically. Now he’s trying to extend that approach to the international stage.