Obama Still Fares Better on Foreign Than on Domestic Issues

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Foreign affairs approval rating at 46%, economy at 39%

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans continue to generally rate President Barack Obama's handling of international issues better than his handling of domestic issues. Forty-six percent approve of the president's handling of foreign affairs and 44% his handling of Libya, while his highest rating on three domestic issues is 40% for healthcare policy.

Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling [various foreign and domestic issues]? March 2011

Obama's approval ratings on all five issues tested in the March 25-27 Gallup poll are below 50%, as is his overall job approval rating, which is 47% in the latest Gallup Daily three-day rolling average.

Gallup has asked Americans about Obama's handling of most of these issues throughout his term. While all currently rank on the low end of what Gallup has measured during his presidency, none is at its lowest point and most have been fairly stable in recent months.

After Obama received relatively positive evaluations for his economic stewardship early in his presidency, his ratings on the economy have held below 40% since early 2010, and are currently at 39%. Because he was elected during the 2008 economic downturn, Obama's handling of the economy could arguably be the most critical issue for how Americans evaluate his presidency leading up to his 2012 re-election bid and how historians judge his legacy in the future.

2009-2011 Trend in Approval on President Obama's Handling of the Economy

The trend lines are similar for Obama's approval on foreign affairs and healthcare policy, with higher ratings early in his presidency, declines from late 2009 into 2010, and more stable scores in recent months.

2009-2011 Trend in Approval on President Obama's Handling of Foreign Affairs

2009-2011 Trend in Approval on President Obama's Handling of Healthcare Policy

Obama's approval rating for handling the budget deficit, now at 33%, is the only issue rating to show a significant increase since the last update in February. It is not clear whether that increase represents a more positive assessment of his recent work on the budget or perhaps just a return to prior levels as the issue has taken a back seat to news about international crises in Japan and Libya. Still, even with the increase, the budget deficit remains Obama's weakest issue.

2009-2011 Trend in Approval on President Obama's Handling of the Federal Budget Deficit

Not All Presidents Have Done Better on Foreign Than on Economic Issues

Gallup has measured presidents' handling of foreign affairs and the economy regularly since Ronald Reagan's presidency. To date, Obama has averaged 50% approval on foreign affairs and 42% on the economy as president. His foreign affairs approval rating is in the middle of the pack, trailing the elder George Bush's 63% average. Obama's average rating on the economy is similar to those for Reagan and George W. Bush, but below Bill Clinton's and above the elder Bush's average.

Presidents' Approval Ratings for Handling the Economy and Foreign Affairs, Term Averages

There is no clear pattern as to whether presidents are generally rated higher on one dimension than on the other. The elder Bush, like Obama, was graded better on foreign affairs than on the economy, while the opposite was true for Clinton. Reagan and George W. Bush got similar ratings in both areas.

The differential ratings likely reflect the events going on at the time. The elder Bush was president during the fall of the communist empire in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and presided over the successful Persian Gulf War in 1991 that drove Iraq out of Kuwait, reflecting positively on his ability to manage foreign affairs. But the economy went into recession during his presidency, leading to Clinton's election. Clinton was in office during the subsequent economic recovery and boom of the late 1990s. George W. Bush got strong foreign affairs approval ratings in his first term, averaging 57%, likely due to his response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but poor ratings in his second term (38%), likely because of the Iraq war.


Obama's ratings on foreign versus domestic issues may have to do as much with the challenges he faces in each arena as with his ability to respond to each. With Obama having been elected to office during a down economy that has been slow to recover, and facing unprecedented budget deficits -- in part due to increased government spending that attempted to jump-start the economy -- his ratings on these issues have not been strong. Although there have been challenges in foreign policy, including the current U.S. mission in Libya, these have perhaps not been as difficult in the eyes of the public as the problems Obama faces domestically.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted March 25-27, 2011, with a random sample of 1,027 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone-only). Each sample includes a minimum quota of 150 cell phone-only respondents and 850 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, education, region, and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in continental U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

View methodology, full question results, and trend data.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.

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