Americans Overwhelmingly Oppose Syria Strike, Want Obama to Back Down

United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll says people want U.S. to find another way to punish Assad for chemical weapons.

Protesters against U.S. intervention in Syria march during a demonstration in Boston, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. 
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
Sept. 9, 2013, 5:59 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama con­tin­ues to face broad pub­lic op­pos­i­tion to mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia and an over­whelm­ing con­sensus that he should not launch at­tacks if Con­gress denies him au­thor­iz­a­tion, the latest United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll has found.

As the pres­id­ent pre­pares to make his case in a na­tion­ally tele­vised ad­dress, the sur­vey found that op­pos­i­tion to in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia largely tran­scends the par­tis­an, ra­cial, age, and re­gion­al bound­ar­ies that frac­ture the pub­lic on al­most all oth­er ma­jor is­sues.

Not only do sol­id ma­jor­it­ies of Re­pub­lic­ans and in­de­pend­ents op­pose the use of force against Syr­ia but so does a strong plur­al­ity of Demo­crats, ac­cord­ing to the poll. Only a mea­ger 13 per­cent of those polled—in­clud­ing just one-fifth of Demo­crats—say Obama should strike Syr­ia any­way if Con­gress does not ap­prove.

On the broad­est ques­tion, the sur­vey noted that “the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has con­cluded that the gov­ern­ment of Syr­ia used chem­ic­al weapons, in­clud­ing nerve gas, to kill over 1,400 ci­vil­ians last month” and asked re­spond­ents how the U.S. should re­spond. A sol­id 55 per­cent ma­jor­ity said the U.S. should “do noth­ing and stay out of the Syr­i­an civil war.” Just 21 per­cent en­dorsed the op­tion Obama prefers: launch­ing “a lim­ited mil­it­ary strike, us­ing only air power, to pun­ish the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment for us­ing chem­ic­al weapons.”

Few pre­ferred more-ag­gress­ive op­tions, with 6 per­cent say­ing the U.S. should mount a sus­tained air cam­paign “to help rebels over­throw the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment” and 6 per­cent more say­ing the U.S. should pur­sue re­gime change with both air power and ground troops. The fi­nal 12 per­cent said they didn’t know what the U.S. should do.

These res­ults sug­gest the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pub­lic-re­la­tions ef­forts have stalled since last week, when an ABC/Wash­ing­ton Post poll sim­il­arly found 59 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans op­posed to mis­sile strikes against Syr­ia.

Per­haps the most strik­ing as­pect of the new find­ings was their con­sist­ency across demo­graph­ic and party lines. Whites were slightly more likely than non­whites, and wo­men slightly more likely than men, to ar­gue that the U.S. should “do noth­ing,” but in all four groups a ma­jor­ity picked that op­tion. Like­wise, while seni­ors re­coiled the most (with nearly two-thirds op­pos­ing), just un­der half of adults un­der 30, nearly three-fifths of those between 30 and 49, and half of those from 50-64 also said the U.S. should not in­ter­vene.

Even across party lines the dif­fer­ences were muted. While 60 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans said the U.S. should “do noth­ing,” so did 58 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents and 48 per­cent of Demo­crats. (Lim­ited strikes drew sup­port from 18 per­cent of both Re­pub­lic­ans and in­de­pend­ents, and from 31 per­cent of Demo­crats.) Some of the groups that typ­ic­ally take the most hawk­ish po­s­i­tions on na­tion­al se­cur­ity also ex­pressed sub­stan­tial res­ist­ance: Fully 58 per­cent of South­ern and rur­al re­spond­ents, as well as 55 per­cent of non­col­lege white men, all said the U.S. should do noth­ing in re­sponse to the at­tack. In all these ways, the sur­vey found at­ti­tudes among the pub­lic broadly par­al­lel­ing the un­usu­al lib­er­al/liber­tari­an co­ali­tion res­ist­ing Obama in Con­gress.

The latest United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll, con­duc­ted by Prin­ceton Sur­vey Re­search As­so­ci­ates In­ter­na­tion­al, sur­veyed 1,002 adults by land­line and cell phone from Sept. 5 to 8. It has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.6 per­cent­age points.

The same broad-based res­ist­ance gen­er­ally re­sur­faced on the more im­me­di­ate ques­tion of what Con­gress should do next. Fifty-two per­cent of re­spond­ents said they pre­ferred their mem­bers of Con­gress to vote against the pres­id­ent’s re­quest “for au­thor­iz­a­tion to con­duct a lim­ited mil­it­ary strike on the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment,” while 37 per­cent said they wanted their mem­bers to sup­port it.

Once again, a ma­jor­ity of both men and wo­men, and a ma­jor­ity or plur­al­ity of adults in all four age groups, and in all four re­gions of the coun­try, said their con­gres­sion­al rep­res­ent­at­ives should op­pose the re­quest. But re­sponses to this ques­tion sug­ges­ted Obama was mak­ing some lim­ited pro­gress in ral­ly­ing Demo­crats: While 63 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans, and 54 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents, said their con­gres­sion­al rep­res­ent­at­ives should op­pose the re­quest, Demo­crats, by 50 per­cent to 41 per­cent, said Con­gress should back him. A slim plur­al­ity of non­whites also said Con­gress should au­thor­ize mil­it­ary ac­tion. On the oth­er hand, both young adults and col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men, two oth­er pil­lars of Obama’s “co­ali­tion of the as­cend­ant,” were no more likely than the coun­try over­all to say Con­gress should ap­prove force.

Not­ing that Obama “says he has the leg­al au­thor­ity to strike Syr­ia with or without con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al,” the sur­vey also asked re­spond­ents what the pres­id­ent should do if Con­gress re­jects his re­quest. Only 13 per­cent of those polled said he should “go ahead with a mil­it­ary strike.” That idea faced wide­spread res­ist­ance even among the pres­id­ent’s core sup­port­ers, win­ning back­ing from just 20 per­cent of Demo­crats, 17 per­cent of minor­it­ies, 12 per­cent of col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men, and 10 per­cent of young adults.

The largest group of those polled, an­oth­er 46 per­cent, said that if Con­gress says no, Obama should “find an­oth­er means to pun­ish Syr­ia, such as eco­nom­ic or dip­lo­mat­ic sanc­tions or cov­ert ac­tion.” That was the most pop­u­lar op­tion among Re­pub­lic­ans, Demo­crats (49 per­cent among each), and in­de­pend­ents (44 per­cent) alike.

An­oth­er 35 per­cent of those polled said that if Con­gress balks, Obama should neither at­tack nor seek to pun­ish Syr­ia through oth­er means. That sen­ti­ment was slightly stronger among in­de­pend­ents (38 per­cent) and Re­pub­lic­ans (37 per­cent) than Demo­crats, but even 28 per­cent of them said that Obama should not tar­get Syr­ia through any meth­od if Con­gress re­jects mil­it­ary force.

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