On Iran, Obama Is Ignoring Public Opinion at His Own Peril

The president’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran underscores the lengths to which he is willing to bypass public resistance.

National Journal
March 19, 2015, 11:09 a.m.

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.

(RE­LATED: Ted Cruz Says He’d Sign the Ir­an Let­ter Again “in Large Print”)

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).

(RE­LATED: Di­vided on Ir­an, Demo­crats Unite Against GOP Let­ter)

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.

(RE­LATED: Con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, With Much at Stake, Await a Clear Out­come in Is­rael’s Elec­tions)

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.

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