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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Public Opinion and Military Action in Syria

The Syrian situation provides, among many other things, a case study of the relationship between public opinion and leaders’ policy decisions. The issue de jour is fairly straightforward and binary -- take military action or not -- and there has been a run-up time period in which to evaluate public opinion. Plus, the president has taken the fairly unusual steps of a) asking the people’s elected representatives, Congress, to weigh in on the decision before he takes action, and b) taking explicit and public notice of public opinion as part of his many discussions, speeches, and interviews on the topic.

The public is against taking military action, and these attitudes have remained negative across the recent time period in which the issue has moved up on the news and media hierarchy. President Obama has, of course, publicly stated his support for taking military action.

President Obama is certainly not unaware that Americans do not support his decision. When reminded that the public was against his proposed military action, Obama said in response to a question by CBS’s Scott Pelley on Monday: “And I, as I said, I understand that. So I'll have a chance to talk to the American people directly tomorrow. I don't expect that it's gonna suddenly swing the polls wildly in the direction of another military engagement.”

The president appears to consider it part of his job to change the public’s mind, as noted in his remarks to Pelley, and also in these comments from last week, when he said that he is “...talking to the American public about why this is important.” He also said that it is, “part of my job to help make the case and to explain to the American people exactly why I think this is the right thing to do.”

This is Part A of the equation -- the attempt to change public opinion. Part B of the equation is to go forward with one's policy convictions anyway, even if public opinion is not changed. In this regard, Obama said in reference to Congress, “Ultimately, you listen to your constituents, but you’ve also got to make some decisions about what you believe is right for America.” And, “And that’s the same for me as president of the United States. There are a whole bunch of decisions that I make that are unpopular, as you well know. But I do so because I think they’re the right thing to do. And I trust my constituents want me to offer my best judgment. That’s why they elected me.”

This last viewpoint suggests that President Obama has been reading Edmund Burke, the Englishman who has enjoyed a renaissance of interest recently, and who, in reference to elected representatives in a government system, said in 1774, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” 

But it’s short-sighted to view this as a simple clash of wills, with the public on one side and the president on the other, and with a simplistic winner-take-all sports model in which in a forensic style debate takes place until someone is declared the winner. Obama, as is the case with most leaders, arrives at a judgment he thinks is right (based on various inputs; more on that in a minute) and then tends to assume the public is misguided or doesn’t understand the complexities, nuances, or full extent of the situation like he does -- leading to his need to persuade them until they see the light. As Obama said, “...hopefully people will recognize why I think this is so important.”  

But that doesn’t have to be the way leaders and elected representatives approach public opinion.

Leaders can and should approach public opinion with reverence and respect. There’s a lot of wisdom out there in the collective opinions of the men and women of this country, and although they certainly don’t have access to all of the information, advice, and briefings that the president does, they have hard-earned wisdom about what they want their representatives to be doing in their behalf in a general sense. In fact, the level of attention the general public gives the Syrian situation is well above average. Americans are focused on the situation, and there is no indication that they are becoming more positive as they hone in. So for a leader like President Obama, it’s a question of looking for the wisdom inherent in the viewpoints of the public and trying not so much to say, “I will attempt to change the public’s opinions,” as to ask, “Why don’t Americans share my views on what needs to be done in Syria?” or, “What can we learn from the reluctance on the part of the American public to get involved in the Syrian situation?” Or, “Is it possible that there is wisdom in the collective opinion of the U.S. public and their desire to not get involved in Syria?” 

If a group of Obama’s trusted advisers showed up at his doorstep to express their strong negative reactions to the idea of attempting military action against Syria, we assume he would listen to and take into account what they had to say. The American people are, in essence, a very large group of trusted advisers. Elected leaders like Obama should listen and take into account what they have to say.

Actually, in this situation, it appears that the president is, in many ways, doing exactly that. When all is said and done, an argument can certainly be made that Obama is listening to the views of the American people -- despite his protestations that he really doesn't need to.

Let’s take each of the top objections of the American people to action in Syria, based on our open-ended question reviewed here, and see what they tell us:

  1. “None of our business/mind our own business/it’s their civil war” About one-quarter of Americans who object to the war give a response that can be put into this classification. President Obama says that it is the United States’ business to react to the Syrian leader’s alleged stepping over the “red line” of the use of chemical weapons. But Obama may actually be aware of the fact that Americans don't see why we should get involved because in his Tuesday night speech, he specifically pointed that he had “...resisted calls for military action, because we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Then the president went on to outline his case for why it is the business of the U.S. to get involved because of the chemical weapons aspect of the situation. So, on this count, it does appear that the president was listening to the people.
  2. “Don’t need any more wars.” Again, the president most certainly recognizes that Americans feel this way, because he has said on numerous occasions that he acknowledges a “war weary” public. So, he has taken pains to acknowledge this and then indicate why he thinks this particular military action is necessary.    
  3. “Won’t do any good. Not well planned.” President Obama, perhaps for obvious reasons, has not gone into detail on the precise nature of the military action he proposes. But more generally, it appears that many members of the public are unclear on what exactly it is that the U.S. will be doing, or how that resolves the Syrian issue. The American public appears to be reluctant to get involved in military action when they don’t understand exactly what that action will involve. This could include a lack of understanding of how limited military action without “boots on the ground” is expected to keep the Syrian leadership from using chemical weapons in the future. The president hasn't addressed this in much specificity.
  4. “Already in debt. Don’t need to add to it with additional expenditures.” And, “Need to take care of issues at home first.” This is a classic cost benefit analysis on the part of the American public. All of our data, including our data on the most important problem facing the country, show that the public puts the economy and jobs at the top of the priority list. Obama appeared to acknowledge this on Tuesday night when he said, “And I know Americans want all of us in Washington -- especially me -- to concentrate on the task of building our nation here at home:  putting people back to work, educating our kids, growing our middle class.”

So it appears that President Obama has, to some extent, been reading public opinion data and in so doing gained an understanding of various reasons why the public does not support his decision to take military action against Syria. And, perhaps in addition to his efforts to change Americans' minds, the president in some ways is taking public opinion into account. Instead of just moving forward and taking the military action oblivious to public opinion, he retrenched and decided to ask the people’s representatives in Congress to weigh in. If we assume that the members of the House and Senate represent the public, then the president is, in fact, respecting public opinion. 

A recent comprehensive review by Robert Shapiro of Columbia University concluded that, in fact, public opinion is often -- but by no means always -- in line with the policy decisions made by elected leaders. That's a good thing in general. In the current situation relating to Syria, we don't know yet what will happen eventually, but there are some signs that the president is taking public opinion into account in making his decision, and that, in the long run, this may provide an example of congruence rather than incongruence between a policy decision and public opinion.

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