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U.S.: What Part Should Public Opinion Play In A President's Decisions?

  • Andrew Tully

American public opinion plays an important role in the issues of war and peace. But analysts say a U.S. president does not bow slavishly to the whims expressed in every poll. As RFE/RL reports, public opinion has a much more subtle influence on policy-making.

Washington, 28 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Recent polls suggest that there has been a steady shift in American public opinion away from support of a possible war with Iraq.

An increasing number of respondents to these surveys say they want U.S. President George W. Bush to pay more attention to the country's struggling economy instead.

For example, a recent poll conducted by "The New York Times" and CBS News found that Americans said they are twice as concerned about the economy as they are about either a pending war in Iraq or the war on terrorism. Nearly 50 percent of the public expressed disapproval of how Bush is handling the economy, while 41 percent expressed disapproval of his management of foreign policy.

A poll conducted for CNN and the "USA Today" newspaper found that 52 percent of Americans favor an invasion of Iraq, the lowest level of support since public discussion of an invasion began last summer.

In a television interview last week on PBS, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked if such polls are a concern to the Bush administration. Powell replied that the Bush administration will not let shifts in public opinion determine foreign policy. Instead, he said, Bush will try to change the public's mind. "We watch these polls, of course, but we have to do what we believe is right, and we believe that if we can make our case to the American people, to the world, that support can be generated. It can be turned around," he said.

Powell's comment raises the question of whether a president should allow his foreign policy -- or any important policy -- to be dictated by variable shifts in public opinion. Two former White House foreign-policy officials said in interviews with RFE/RL that there is no question that presidents are concerned about America's mood, but in ways that may not be immediately evident.

Leon Fuerth was the national security adviser to Al Gore, who served as vice president to Bill Clinton, Bush's predecessor. Fuerth said it makes strategic sense for a president to gauge public opinion if he is considering going to war. "It [public opinion] concerns them [presidents] because they all know that -- especially if there's a high-stakes item, especially war, at the top of that list -- one of your strategic assets, in addition to military force, is political support at home, which is the most difficult of all commodities to put your hands on," Fuerth said.

But Fuerth stressed that a president's perception of public opinion is not limited to polls. He said the White House gets far more reliable information about the country's mood from members of Congress.

According to Fuerth, a senator or a representative has direct contact with thousands of constituents. Pollsters, meanwhile, use complex mathematical formulas to glean the opinions of an entire nation by questioning only a minute fraction of the population. "Members of Congress are home in their districts a lot. They're talking to people [constituents] on a face-to-face basis, and they receive large volumes of mail from their districts. So they don't only have so-called 'scientific' polling to run on, they have a lot of direct feel for what's out there [what their constituents think]," he said.

But Fuerth said this does not mean a president slavishly follows the dictates of public opinion, if only because that would mean making dramatic shifts in policy as public opinion shifts.

According to Fuerth, the public's attitude can be reversed, and then set firm, as it was during World War II because of the shock of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. But he points out that the will of the American people can also shift, as it has in the 16 months since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. "Events can cause people to do almost a 180, as Pearl Harbor did and as 11 September did. And then, of course, there's the question of whether or not, after the deep emotion passes, where will people actually settle? Will they stay in a very determined frame of mind, as they did after Pearl Harbor, or will doubts creep back in, as they appear to be doing at the present time?"

James Lindsay agreed. He served as the director of global issues and multilateral affairs at the White House's National Security Council during the presidency of Bill Clinton. He said public opinion can have an influence on government policy.

Lindsay said a capable leader can persuade people to change their minds, especially on subjects that are as complex as foreign policy. "They [the public] have opinions, but they're not intensely held. You can have public support that is both wide and shallow, and this is what we really saw [in American public opinion] on Iraq three months ago. Now the mood's swung the other way, where the public is much less enthusiastic about a proposed war, but [the opinion is] still broad and shallow. The president -- if he decides to make Iraq an issue, which presumably he will -- he can shape that opinion. He can move it back in a direction that favors his policies," Lindsay said.

Fuerth said it is up to a president to do what he believes is right based on the knowledge available to him -- and he must do it whether he can persuade the American people to support him or not. That, he says, brings into play the very characteristics that won him the election in the first place -- leadership. "In the end, they have to make decisions about what they think is best for the United States, and then it is the responsibility of leadership to somehow convince the people to go if the measure is not going to be [already] popular," he said.

Lindsay said a public that initially opposes a president's foreign policy may eventually reward him if he pursues it regardless of popular opposition -- but only if that policy is a success. "People will judge the president on the basis of whether his policies worked, not on how they felt about those policies before he enacted them."

Lindsay pointed out that a president can disregard public opinion on such matters, at least temporarily, in part because under the American system, the head of government is elected for a four-year term and cannot be removed simply because of differences over policy.

He also said Congress generally views foreign policy as the exclusive province of the presidential administration. But he notes that Congress has enormous control over other areas of foreign policy, such as treaties with other nations and the appropriation of money to carry out foreign policy.

But as for military action, Lindsay said Congress can yield its prerogative to declare war -- and that it already did so last autumn. At that time, both the Senate and the House of Representatives voted by generous margins to authorize Bush to take whatever action he deems necessary to force Iraq to disarm.