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For Obama, Political Risks in Projecting Powerlessness

Last Thursday morning, just as the Egyptian crisis was at its bloodiest, President Obama attended a national prayer breakfast. One wonders if he was tempted to recite the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Few sentences more clearly articulate the risks and rewards facing the president when he is confronted with a foreign crisis.

Are Mr. Obama’s approval ratings declining in response to the events in Egypt? Some people are suggesting so, largely because of his performance in the Gallup daily tracking polls. Over the 48 hours from Wednesday to Friday, Mr. Obama’s approval rating in the polls fell 4 points, to 46 percent.

An unfavorable sequence of events was happening in Egypt in this period. President Hosni Mubarak pledged to give up power when his term ends, but — to the dissatisfaction of most protesters — not before. Mr. Obama pressed for a quicker transition, but the next day, Mr. Mubarak’s government began trying to crack down roughly on protesters and foreign journalists.

The timing is intriguing — but not dispositive. Such approval rating declines are relatively common in the Gallup poll. Since May 2009, there have been 17 occasions when Mr. Obama’s Gallup approval rating declined by 4 points or more in 48 hours. Some of these shifts were undoubtedly in response to real and tangible developments in the news, but others in all likelihood were statistical flukes.

It is probably impossible to say what happened in this case, especially in the absence of polling that asks people what they think about Mr. Obama’s policy toward Egypt in particular.

(Another daily tracking poll, by Rasmussen Reports, showed a comparable decline in Mr. Obama’s approval at the same time, but his rating in that poll has since rebounded to 49 percent, about where it was before.)

Still, it is worth considering what effects a foreign policy crisis like the one in Egypt can have on a president’s approval ratings more generally.

One fairly well-documented pattern is called the rally effect:  presidential approval generally increases after the United States or one of its closest allies is attacked (Sept. 11, 2001, for instance) — and in most (but not all) cases, when the United States initiates a military attack (the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, for instance).

A study by Paul Gronke and John Brehm suggests, however, that while such events tend to improve presidential approval at first, they also make the ratings significantly more volatile. The taking of 66 hostages at the American embassy in Iran in November 1979, for instance, initially improved Jimmy Carter’s approval rating, but eventually injured it gravely, after he tried and failed to resolve the crisis for the rest of his term.

It is not clear that these examples are very relevant to the situation in Egypt. One can imagine any number of events there — a taking of hostages or an attack on the American embassy — that would define American interests far more clearly, and might produce a rally effect. (They would also put those interests, and the president’s standing, at greater risk.) With the arguable exception of the attacks on journalists, however, events so far in Egypt have not engaged American interests so directly.

Indeed, it is not obvious where American interests lie. On the one hand, the United States has an ostensible goal of promoting democracy in the region, but it also has an interest in promoting stability, and the autocratic Mr. Mubarak has been an ally for a long time.

Perhaps the most common critique of Mr. Obama’s handling of Egypt so far is that his response, encumbered by these contradictory objectives, has failed to articulate the United States’s goals clearly enough.

It might seem to be more courageous for Mr. Obama to take a bolder stand. But a wise president must also consider whether he is likely to make any difference by doing so.

In terms of his domestic political standing, there would probably be more danger for Mr. Obama in tying himself to any one particular outcome in Egypt than in remaining vague. A study by James Meernik and Michael Ault finds that when the United States adopts a strategy that depends on internal change in a foreign nation — that is, one that explicitly promotes the success of one faction in a domestic power struggle or civil war — the approval rating for the president’s foreign policy regarding that country declines by an average of 13 points. (This is not the same as overall presidential approval, which may be affected only negligibly, depending on how important the issue is relative to others.) By contrast, a policy of restraint is associated with a slight increase in approval of presidential policy toward that country.

Mr. Meernik and Mr. Ault do not offer a hypothesis about why this effect occurs. But one reasonable explanation is that it is extremely difficult for the United States to favorably affect the outcome of an internal conflict, particularly in regions where the United States is not well-liked. And even when the United States picks the winning side in such a conflict, it may require months, years or even decades before that side prevails. The president, therefore, may be at risk of appearing impotent under such circumstances.

The decline in Mr. Obama’s Gallup approval rating last week — to the extent it was something other than statistical noise — might support this hypothesis. It happened at the point in time when the White House was coming closest to taking the protesters’ side in the Egyptian crisis. But Mr. Mubarak’s crackdown appeared to demonstrate how little influence the United States ultimately has over Egypt’s affairs.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.