Obama Seen in Poll as Steadier Than Romney on Mideast

Obama Seen as Steadier Than Romney in Dealing With Mideast
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday, President Barack Obama reiterated his vow to “do what we must to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Americans have more confidence in President Barack Obama to deal with a crisis in the Middle East than they do Republican Mitt Romney, though they are losing faith in the president’s handling of terrorism.

By a margin of 49 percent to 38 percent, respondents to a Bloomberg National Poll say Obama would be better suited to cope with unforeseen events in the volatile region.

“He’s not so quick to jump to war,” says Robert Hypes, 60, of Blacksburg, Virginia. “I think he tries diplomatic steps more than the Republicans do.”

The advantage Obama has enjoyed since the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces is eroding, according to the poll, conducted Sept. 21-24. In the wake of violent protests in Libya that left the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead, likely voters, by 48 percent to 42 percent, say Romney would be tougher on terrorism than would the president.

“His one claim to fame was getting Osama, and that was the work of a lot of people,” says Tim Cotter, 65, a retired Air Force major in Rome, Georgia. “Drone strikes? Yeah, he’s done drone strikes, but he probably had to be dragged to the table kicking and screaming by his generals.”

Romney is seeking to capitalize on turmoil in the Middle East, ranging from strains in the U.S.-Israel alliance over a showdown with Iran to violent protests in the once-authoritarian countries that embraced democracy in the “Arab spring.”

Attacks Blunted

The poll, coming two weeks after Romney assailed Obama’s response to protests in Libya and Egypt, offers little evidence the Republican’s foreign policy critique is boosting his candidacy.

Amid a weak economic recovery, Americans show little interest in national security matters, the Bloomberg poll found. Asked to identify the most important issue facing the electorate, just 6 percent pick “the situation in the Middle East” and 3 percent choose “terrorism,” while 43 percent say “unemployment and jobs.”

“I personally don’t care what goes on in the Middle East until it starts affecting Americans,” says Hypes.

Among likely voters, the two candidates duel to a near-draw on other foreign policy questions, including dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and relations with Israel.

Forty-nine percent endorse the Obama administration’s approach to Iran, saying the U.S. should give diplomacy and economic sanctions additional time while discouraging the Israeli government from launching its own attack; 32 percent say the U.S. should join an Israeli attack.

Why the Policeman?

“Why do we have to be the policeman of the world?” says Mike Blanchard, 53, of Millbrae, California. “Look what it’s doing to our country.”

In a Sept. 25 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Obama reiterated his vow to “do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Asked which candidate would do a better job on trade with China, likely voters split evenly between the incumbent and his Republican challenger. Romney has accused the administration of being soft on China and said he would crack down on that country’s “cheating” on trade, citing its inadequate protection for intellectual property and undervalued currency.

Romney this week accused the president of leaving the U.S. “at the mercy of events” in the Middle East. And he promised to fight fanaticism by funneling American aid to countries that opened their markets to U.S. goods. “The aim of a much larger share of our aid must be the promotion of work and the fostering of free enterprise,” he said at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York.

Down on Diplomacy

Those surveyed give Obama poorer marks for his handling of diplomacy than in the March Bloomberg poll. By a margin of 47 percent to 45 percent, respondents disapprove of the president’s handling of relations with other countries. In March, 54 percent of respondents approved and 40 percent disapproved.

“He’s just in over his head,” said Jerry Norman, 69, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Both candidates confront ample voter skepticism about their ability to keep their promises. By a margin of 61 percent to 35 percent, likely voters doubt Obama will be able to stop Iran’s drive to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Likely voters, by a 50 percent to 41 percent margin, say they are skeptical that Romney will follow through with promises to designate China a currency manipulator and to impose duties on imports from that country.

Crippling al-Qaeda

Overall, the Democratic Party’s traditional vulnerability on national-security issues has receded at a time of economic weakness, according to the poll.

Joseph Green, 22, of Roselle, Illinois, credits Obama with using covert operations to undermine Iran’s nuclear research and with crippling al-Qaeda’s terrorist ambitions with targeted killings.

“Commanding officers and people all the way down the list have just been taken off the map,” says Green, who works for an e-mail marketing company.

The legacy of the war in Iraq, started in 2003 to find weapons of mass destruction that were never located, remains a cautionary story for some. Amy Temple Harper, 42, a writer in Portland, Oregon, says she was worried the U.S. might “overreact” in the region.

“Recent history shows that has led to a huge cost of lives and resources,” she says.

The poll of 1,007 adults, including a subset of 789 likely voters, was conducted for Bloomberg News by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, Iowa. The results for the general population have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points; those for the likely voters have an error margin of 3.5 points.

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