PrintPrint EmailEmail ShareShare CiteCite


Campaign 2008: Public Opinion and Foreign Policy

Panelists: Marvin Kalb, Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice Emeritus and Senior Fellow, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University, and Andrew Kohut, President, Pew Research Center
Moderator: Margaret Warner, Senior Correspondent, “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer”
September 26, 2008
Council on Foreign Relations


MARGARET G. WARNER: Good morning, everyone. Good morning. I'm Margaret Warner from "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," and it's wonderful to welcome you all to this morning meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations.

And I know you all are veterans of this, so you know the ground rules. All cell phones, pagers other devices should be, I'm told, turned off, not just vibrate, because it interferes with the sound system.

So our topic today is part of -- I think, it's the Campaign 2008 series. And this one is on public opinion and foreign policy. Now, we thought it was a very timely topic coming on the morning of the first presidential debate devoted to foreign affairs. At this point, as we gather this morning, it's not clear the debate is going to go on nor to what degree foreign policy is going to dominate the debate, if it does. I want to declare here and now that despite Jim Lehrer's role, I have no inside information on that point. (Laughter.)

But whatever happens tonight, we all know that voter perceptions of the candidates' ability to lead this nation in a dangerous world and also to lead America in its leadership role in the world is always a very important subtext of any campaign. And we have two seasoned experts, veterans of campaigns and policy and Washington to help us explore this this morning in terms of how it applies to this campaign, how it applies to the priorities for the next president and also the state of public support for those priorities.

We'll go maybe 25 minutes or so and then open it to your questions. This meeting is on the record.

And our panelists need no introduction I'm sure, but Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, which has been doing superb surveys of public opinion in a really deep and penetrating way for quite some time under Andy's leadership; and Marvin Kalb, who is the senior fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Affairs.

And -- the Pew Research Center has just completed its final pre-election poll -- is that right, Andy? -- of voter attitudes about foreign affairs. So let's start with that, if we could. And maybe you could lay out just, as a ground work for all of us -- the poll is outside. And I don't know if some of you had the chance to look at it. But Andy's going to give us the gist.

I mean, the next president is going to inherit the role of American leadership in the world. And despite our problems abroad and militarily, diplomatically and now, of course, our problems here at home economically, we are still the most powerful nation in the world. And -- so Andy, what does your latest polling tell you about Americans' support for exercising that leadership, for engaging in the world?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, first, a little background. Since 1993, we've been conducting periodic surveys about how the American public sees America's place in the world. The survey that we conducted two weeks ago, in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations found one of the lowest levels of public support for engagement on a number of global issues.

This is a public that is largely focused on domestic issues, especially the economy. And it has a much diminished appetite for a range of global goals. I'll just read you a few of the trends in the survey. Keep in mind that the trend lines go all the way back to 1993, and these numbers are especially low -- or among the lowest in a series.

In 2005, 46 percent of the people that we questioned said that they thought top priority should be given for the U.S. to prevent genocide. That number went from 45 percent to 32 percent in the current survey.

The percentage of people in 2005 who said strengthening the United Nations should be a top foreign policy goal was 40 percent. It slipped to 32 percent in this survey.

Promoting human rights, the trend was 37 (percent) to 25 percent.

Reducing the spread of AIDS, 72 (percent) to 53 percent.

There's a clear pattern in this data. The public's top long-term foreign policy goals are more or less unchanged, and they are decidedly American-centric -- defending the country against terrorism, protecting U.S. jobs and energy independence. And there's ever more support for energy independence compared to two, four, six, eight years ago.

In this environment, we also see less support for an assertive national security approach. Our trend surveys in recent years found fewer people agreeing with the notion that the best way to achieve peace is through a strong military. This poll finds 45 percent saying reducing U.S. military commitments overseas should be a top goal. Four years ago, that 42 percent was just 35 percent.

This climate of opinion is evident, even though we've had a rather significant change in public views about Iraq. Nearly six in 10 Americans said in this current survey that the war in Iraq was going well. That's the highest percentage saying that that we've had in four years. In fact, as recently as last December, 41 percent were saying the war was going well.

The public has a much better opinion about the prospects for achieving our goals in Iraq. But nonetheless, there's hardly any change on some basic decisions. Most people continue to think that the war in Iraq was a mistake. The majority have that view. And a majority of people continue to say we should get out of Iraq -- take our troops out of Iraq -- as soon as possible.

One notable exception for this broader trend against global engagement is we still have a strong majority opinion for keeping U.S. troops and NATO troops in Afghanistan -- 60 percent are of that opinion. And even 53 percent of Democrats, who take a less positive view about military engagement, favor keeping troops in Afghanistan.

A couple of more things. While there is bipartisan support for keeping the troops in Afghanistan, the gaps between Republicans and Democrats on any number of foreign policy goals are huge, not any huger than they've been, but a perpetuation of what we've seen.

For example, 64 percent of Democrats think that dealing with global climate change should be a top foreign policy goal, 22 percent of Republicans believe that. That's a 42 percentage point gap.

Fifty-seven percent of Democrats think that reducing U.S. military engagement should be a top goal, just 29 percent of Republicans believe that.

Sixty-five percent of Democrats believe that reducing the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases around the world should be something we give top priority. Among Republicans, that view is 42 percent.

I won't read you any more. The list goes on and on. A few more things and then I'll stop.

As to opinions about threats to the United States, seven years after 9/11, 72 percent of the public continue to say that Islamic extremist groups like al Qaeda represent a major threat to the well being of the United States. Smaller but still significant majorities rate the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea as major threats.

While there's an increasing percentage of people who volunteer that Russia is a threat to the United States, it's still a minority point of view. And when you ask people detailed questions about Russia and China, few people see these countries as adversaries. Most people say these are problems but not adversaries.

There's a lot more in the poll which I hope you're going to get to, Margaret, but I'm going to leave it there.

WARNER: Well, I just wanted to get a quick comment from Marvin, and then I want to come back and talk about the -- (inaudible) -- candidate's strengths and voter opinion.

But Marvin, does this -- what does this -- does this remind you of public sentiment, say, after the Vietnam War? Does it go that far? Would you call this isolationism, or would you just call this sort of prudent caution given our problems here at home?

MARVIN KALB: Well, let's try self-absorption at the moment and think of it as perfectly understandable when you think about the economy. Andy speaks about this poll having been done two weeks ago and trend lines dating back to '93. If you are a normal American citizen and you think about what is going on in your world, you see your economy in great danger, so you are told, and you see the United States' position all around the world, if you care for issues like this, then you say it's continued in decline. And so naturally, you would begin to look inward.

However, this is not a new phenomenon, as Andy knows better than anyone, in American history. Ever since Washington's warning about foreign entanglements, there's been a strain of isolationism that has run through American public opinion and American action.

Up until the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, when the Republican Party adopted an internationalist tone behind Arthur Vandenberg, I mean, there was a distinct change in the attitude of Republicans in a political sense in the U.S. to attach themselves to a global view rather than a purely domestic view.

WARNER: And that was in the context of the Cold War.

KALB: And that was the context of the beginning of the Cold War. Then if you go into the period, that long period of the Vietnam War, when we emerged out of that, there was an initial period of looking in. But again, the world knocked on America's door, and we couldn't look in for too long a period of time.

Look, Roosevelt in 1940 ran on a principle, "I'm not getting you into the war." That was a way of getting elected, but he was responding to a strong isolationist sentiment.

So at this point right now, I think that we're at another of those key historic moments when the American people, for understandable reasons, are beginning to look in. But I repeat: no matter who the new president is going to be, that new president is going to find the world still looking for American leadership. And that opens another line of questioning which I will field.

WARNER: Well, let's go ahead and --

KOHUT: Can I just --

WARNER: Yes, please.

KOHUT: -- respond a little bit to that. My colleague, Bruce Stokes, and I wrote a book called "America Against the World" about how American exceptionalism plays into anti-Americanism. And a good part of it is how equivocal the American public is and has historically been about internationalists. We are not consistent internationalists. We blow hot and cold, in part, depending upon world conditions but also, in part, depending upon leadership as to how much support there is for internationalist measures.

And as Marvin points out, we're at a low point. It, too, probably will change.

WARNER: I think what's interesting that it appears to me that the public has been quite discriminating. They're not saying, let's completely retreat. For instance, if you look at Afghanistan, they're still persuaded that, especially since you worded the question "U.S. and NATO troops," right? So maybe that had something to do with it. But they still see that as a hopeful and important venture. I mean, do you see them making distinctions here? Or -- for instance, energy independence, which clearly, of course, benefits the United States. Do you see them making distinctions about what kind of international engagement?

KOHUT: If it's about us, it continues to get high ratings. If it smacks of America doing things for people in other parts of the world, it gets lower ratings and there's less of an appetite for it than there once was.

KALB: Well, just to point out another poll, forgive me. (Scattered laughter.) The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for example, asked to rate a series of goals for U.S. foreign policy, overwhelming 83 percent rate, quote, "improving America's standing in the world" as very important.

So that's another point, Margaret, that there are -- there is a sentiment that America is part of the world. There's no retreating from that. But it's a discriminating retreat to the degree that there is a retreat at all. We want to be involved, but we want to be involved on our terms. And the world may not cooperate on that issue.

WARNER: And I think in that other poll -- excuse me, Andy -- it did -- people, for instance, democracy promotion was not high on the list, things that appeared elective, as it were, were not high on the list. But things that seemed to potentially go down to America being stronger and more secure did.

Andy, now going into tonight's debate -- if it's tonight -- tell us about the relative standings of John McCain and Barack Obama in terms of how viewers assess their leadership abilities in this area.

KOHUT: Well, John McCain --

WARNER: The conventional wisdom is McCain is just seen as much stronger --

KOHUT: -- John McCain has an advantage in terms of public confidence on most issues relating to foreign policy, making wise decisions about Iraq, even though the public agrees with Obama about the basic decision of getting troops out. Forty-eight percent say McCain -- they have more confidence in McCain, 41 percent Obama. Wise decisions about foreign policy, more generally, an Obama -- I mean, a McCain advantage 51 (percent) to 40 (percent). And on defending the country from future terrorist attacks, 56 percent to 31 percent.

Certainly, these are the views of the public at large. They're the views of swing voters. But one of the things that maybe softens the blow a bit for Obama is how much the public is focused on domestic issues and not foreign issues. When we asked people what should the next president focus on primarily, domestic issues or foreign policy, by a 60 percent to 21 percent margin, they say domestic issues, not foreign policy. In January of 2005, when President Bush was starting his second term, the numbers were much more even -- 53 (percent) to 26 (percent).

So the advantage is certainly to McCain on foreign policy because it speaks to the public's concerns about Obama's lack of experience and lack of seasoning and also, obviously, to McCain's long, long association with national security issues.

But their heads are elsewhere.

WARNER: (Background noise) -- the numbers are just outside a 30-point spread, yet the horse race numbers in your same pool of voters or similar is almost even. Is that telling you that these concerns about their foreign policy leadership isn't that important?

KOHUT: It's less important. It's certainly less important than it was four years ago. I should add -- the point I should've made, is the gaps for McCain over Obama are almost identical on these same questions over what Bush had on Kerry four years ago at this time.

WARNER: And does that surprise you given Kerry's clear foreign policy experience?

KOHUT: I was surprised by it. At one point, the gaps were even larger on foreign policy than what's for Bush and Kerry. One of the things that comes through in the perception about Obama, apart from this general notion of experience, is many people see him as not tough enough. Forty-five percent say Obama's not tough enough. They don't say that about McCain.

But an equally -- or an almost similarly large number say they worry that McCain will bring us into another war. So there's lots of cross currents going on here.

KALB: I can't tell you that I have a single poll to back up what I'm about to say.

WARNER: That's all right. (Laughs.)

KALB: But I have a very strong sense that in the past couple of weeks, that general perception of McCain is beginning to change. The idea that you can get solid judgment calls, leadership in all areas, not just foreign policy, from John McCain is something, much to my surprise, that I find changing both in what I hear in conversation and what I see on television and what I read in newspapers.

Starting with the selection of Sarah Palin, then going on to the way in which he has stepped forward or not stepped forward on the issue of the economy at least raises questions about whether this man's experience, which is legendary, is there and will produce the best judgment call for the American people at any point.

The idea that Sarah Palin, for example, cannot answer -- forgive me if some of you are Republicans out there -- (laughter) --

WARNER: I hope some are.

KOHUT: I don't see any.

KALB: -- but you can't answer a question intelligently about Alaska geographically to Russia and then Canada and she's surrounded, that is frightening. And when you see that on television, it's not just her, it's a reflection of McCain's judgment. And I think that comes into play. And a lot of what Andy is giving us is there and has been there and it's solid, except I feel it cracking at the edges.

WARNER: Let me go back to your more cosmic findings about American support for engagement with the world and pick up on a point -- and, Marvin, see if you could expand on it -- about the fact that the world will come knocking at America's door anyway.

And my question is, in the end -- I mean, this is a heretical notion we're sitting here discussing public opinion about foreign affairs -- but does it ever really hamper a president, at least when he wants to start something new, if the public isn't already there with him? Can't a president always generate the support he needs, at least to embark on something?

KALB: Sure. I think that a president can, but the circumstances are restrictive at this particular point because you can have bold ideas, but bold ideas are generally accompanied by a price tag. If you don't have the money -- and we're going deeply and increasingly into debt as a nation -- that is something that can cut into your capacities.

I mean, my sense is that -- I base this on my own travels which are somewhat extensive -- Russia, the Middle East, Europe. I get a sense that most of the world is ready for a change. They want to get away from the Bush years, and they want something different. And McCain does represent in foreign affairs, more or less, a continuation of what you've had, this fear of --

WARNER: Is that what -- perception overseas do you think?

KALB: Yeah. Well, overseas -- what I'm getting at is that there is, again, a recent poll -- maybe it's Andy's as a matter of fact -- but overwhelmingly, countries in Europe, Middle East, Asia would like to see an Obama victory rather than a McCain victory, again, because of the sense that McCain may represent for them more of the same.

Most of the world has fallen in love with Obama. That's raised expectations very high. He cannot possibly meet them if he's elected. I think most of the world wants to see an American withdrawal from Iraq, not suddenly but definitely, and here a timetable makes sense, even for the Iraqi government. They want an American re-engagement on issues ranging from global warming to a sensible policy toward energy.

These are very large issues that either candidate is going to face as president. But my gut feeling, given the attitude that I sense, is that Obama would have more of a head start, an opportunity to move in a positive direction than would McCain.

KOHUT: Can I just sneak -- one thing about this -- the way foreign policy constrains presidents. Presidents can lead public opinion and foreign policy to a greater extent than domestic policy, I believe, and I think there's some pretty good experience from it.

Look at the job that the Clintons did in getting at least modest support to do things in the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo and so on. But look back to 1984 and 1983 and think about how public opinion prevented the Reagan administration from taking a tougher position on using military force in Central America. There was no market for that. And despite all of Reagan's capital with the public, especially in his second term, there was no doing that. So there are --

WARNER: And that was something that required congressional approval, so --

KOHUT: And congressional approval resonates with public opinion in any event. So I think that, yes, the president -- foreign policy comes knocking, but public opinion presents something that the president has to deal with --

KALB: Absolutely.

KOHUT: Sometimes he can, and sometimes he can't.

WARNER: On Iraq, what are the implications -- and both of you -- Andy, I'll start with you, your findings -- do you think, in policy terms, for the next president? I mean, instead of a neon green light about getting out, it seems to be, what, a flashing yellow?

KOHUT: Well, I think the next president has more wiggle room on getting out. Iraq is not the top problem in the minds of the public the way it was a year ago at this time. More people think we might achieve our goals, there are, fewer casualties. It's just less pressure on it. People still say they want out as soon as possible. When we probe, they mean in a more gradual way. They don't mean fleeing out.

But I think, given the fact that the public is feeling better about the way things are going, certainly better than they were a year ago, it does give the next president, McCain or Obama, a little more latitude.

KALB: McCain has always said that the key issue are the casualty numbers. If the casualty numbers are down, he has said in the past, I think, in a semi-jocular way, we can stay there 100 years, and it wouldn't make any difference. He didn't mean literally staying 100, but he meant that if casualties are down, the American people are not going to be worked up, they're not going to be upset, they're not going to be putting pressure on Congress and on the president.

So from that point of view, I agree with Andy that the next president will have more wiggle room in finding a way out of Iraq. But finding a way out is the key. And my sense is that if the Iraqi government is now prepared, for their own political and nationalistic reasons, to want the U.S. out, and they see that one of the candidates is talking about a specific, though increasingly not that specific, timetable but a timetable nonetheless, that seems to me to be the central issue. And that means out, not staying around.

WARNER: And the other pressure, I think, that will continue is the budgetary pressure.

KALB: Exactly.

WARNER: And so -- (background noise) -- not what I've seen in the campaign but I think we're going to hear that from Congress.

Finally before we go to questions, a little more on this America's standing in the world.

And Andy, if you look -- (audio break) -- sense an unease -- well, one, an awareness in the American public that our preeminence is slipping, that we're moving to a world with two or three major centers of power and influence and that's, in economic terms as well as military and diplomatic -- a sense that America's ability to work its will just is diminished. Without pointing a finger at why, do you sense that? And to what degree is the American public troubled by that?

KOHUT: Well, I think that increasing numbers of people around the world think that China -- (audio break) -- the United States in the not-too-distant future as the world's leading superpower. Americans are less of this view, but many Americans worry about this.

I think the public is also cognizant of the fact that America has lost, you know, our prestige and lost the goodwill of many of its former allies. We get 54 percent of the public saying that improving relations with allies should be the top foreign policy goal. That is exactly what we got four years ago, however. And while the public was expressing those (feelings ?) about improving relations with allies, they overall elected George W. Bush. And the principal reason, the principal basis of distinction between Bush and Kerry in that election was over a greater sense of confidence about Bush's leadership with regard to national security.

That's a long-winded way of saying the public tends to be very two-minded about these things. It wants better relationships with allies. Concerns about losing power or concerns about the economic rivalries with China are, of course, another thing.

WARNER: And doesn't the whole energy dependence play into this, the sense that Americans have now that they're really not masters of their fate on that very important part of our economy and their daily life?

KALB: Well, the perception that the U.S. is not the U.S. of old has been a building one really since an awareness after the invasion of Iraq that things were not going all that well. And so America's position in the world has been in a state of unquestioned decline since that time.

The economic problems, however, of recent weeks has accelerated that tendency. And I sensed it twice in the course of the past week. Once in comments out of the U.N. in the past couple of days where diplomats, visiting foreign ministers, visiting president have been saying on the QT, on background, look, America is not what it was, we're not here to take orders anymore.

The other thing -- I was a participant in a conference this past weekend at which there were many Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis. The issue was the Middle East. And the new 800-pound gorilla in the negotiation was not Hamas and Gaza but rather the strength now of the United States to move both parties toward a conclusion, some kind of end game in the negotiation in the Middle East.

They know that the U.S. is still essential, but they don't feel that the U.S. any longer has the power, definitely in the final analysis, to conclude the deal. That's a huge change, particularly in the Middle East.

WARNER: We are going to go to questions. And you all, I know, know the sort of ground rules. We have microphones. If you just raise your hand and give your name and affiliation. And I may have gently say keep your questions concise, please, so more people can ask them.

Right here. We'll start here.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Hanya Kim (sp). I do private equity in China.

I was wondering if you had any polls that took people whose family and friends and neighbors had been in the military or were overseas in Iraq versus those who hadn't. Because I noticed in D.C. and New York, nobody's family is in the military. I go to a place like Missoula, Montana, they have signs up in the grocery store covering a whole wall with people who died in Iraq or people who are over there. Do any of the polls give us that data?

KOHUT: There are relatively small numbers of people who have members of their immediate families in Iraq or who have been in Iraq. We have asked questions about knowing or having family members or close friends who have served in Iraq. And typically, those people tend to be more supportive of the war in Iraq than do other citizens.

WARNER: Yes, right here.

QUESTIONER: Joe Reeder, retired public servant and private practice of law. Thank you very much.

Andy, I'd like to say a current poll -- and usually two weeks old would be very current -- but given the last 10 days, I just gotta wonder what some of the answers would have been. This is the question I have. You mentioned -- and I look at the poll on Russia. It relates to Russia, but it's really a press question. This marks now the fifth anniversary of when the Council on Foreign Relations marked as a watershed event when Russia ditched the rule of law, arrested Khodorkovsky, destroyed Ukhov's ghost and began using oil as a weapon.

We may or may not have a debate tonight. But whenever the foreign relations debate occurs -- and Obama and McCain may disagree on everything -- but the one thing they do agree on and they -- amazingly few people remember this -- before either one of them was a candidate, co-sponsored a joint resolution condemning the trial and arrest of Khodorkovsky, okay. Also, Biden -- Biden was the third --

WARNER: Is there a question?

QUESTIONER: Yes, there is a question. And give me about 15 more seconds, and I'll get to it. We've never had presidential candidates join or co-sponsor before. An Obama adviser two weeks ago testified to Congress that Russia must send a signal as an ally. Withdrawal from South Ossetia, I don't think, is in the cards. My question is this. Can the press play a constructive role here, small role, baby step, pick up where this council left off, help move Russia along and call upon the candidates to back up their joint resolution on Khodorkovsky with concrete statements and statesmanship? Thank you.

KALB: I appreciate that kind of question because it cuts both ways for me. One, just to the heart of the issue you're raising, which relates to Russia, and another is press responsibility which is a broader issue. And on the latter, let me just say that it is my view -- and that's it, just my view -- that it's not the press' responsibility to make things better between the U.S. and Russia. That's for the president, the diplomats, the Congress and the public. The press is supposed to reflect those currents, but not fashion them.

As far as the Russia thing is concerned, the two candidates came together before things got dicey. Right now, there is in Russia a very clear difference among Russian leaders about these two candidates. McCain represents a kind of threat to the way in which Russia perceives itself at the moment. With Obama, there are a lot of words that are regarded not as threats but as challenges. But with him, they feel they can work something out, they can talk.

McCain definitely comes on as a tougher challenge, a man who is going to disrupt things, who may kick us out of the group of eight. Because McCain -- I've heard this directly from a senior Russian official that when McCain said "we are all Georgians" the Russian asked me, did he mean that if we were to move against Georgia again that the United States would come in with military force? I say, I haven't a clue, but I think not. But these are serious questions in Moscow at this point.

WARNER: Yes, and then I'll go to the back. Sir, right here.

QUESTIONER: Allan McArtor, Airbus Americas.

And to answer Marvin's question, yes, there are Republicans in the room.

KALB: Good! Good! (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: And a proud member of a former Reagan team.

Marvin, I certainly don't want to have this sound wrong, but you made a very interesting statement.

KALB: I'm delighted it was interesting. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: You said, no poll to reference, but what I read in the newspapers and hear on TV, and then you gave an opinion. Do you think that is a qualification for forming a learned opinion? And then your other quote was the press is to reflect currents, not fashion them. Do you think that applies across the board?

KALB: Thank you very much, sir. Appreciate that.

In my opinion, the press overall, the media, does affect public opinion, it does move currents of thought, it does give space to certain opinions and diminished space to others. In that sense, there is an influence. That is the effect of its work.

The intent of its work, I continue to believe, remains to provide, to pick up the words of Fox, as fair and balanced a view of reality as it is possible for a human being who is a professional journalist to come up with. So I know in that second point where you're going and, of course, the press has that influence. But the press is there as well, I'm sorry to say, to be manipulated and used by all politicians. And in a campaign, that happens time and time again.

When Senator McCain decided to make an announcement that he was coming down to Washington to save us all at that particular time, what did he do? The first thing that happened was they got a room. The second the word went out to the cameras, all of them set up, three teleprompters are there because he reads -- I don't think he does that well unprompted -- but they were there. That is the use of the media to advance your own political agenda. Both sides do it. It is part of our democracy. But there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the media, which, quite often, I share.

WARNER: Let's have a question in the -- oh, go ahead.

KOHUT: A quick note to this real fast. Does the press influence public opinion? Absolutely. Is the public often capable of ignoring the press? Absolutely, too. If you look at the way the press covered Palin initially, it was at a right angle to the public response to her. It was coverage that questioned her credentials and his choice. And public opinion was pretty positive. So the public does have the capacity to make up its mind, even though it's often influenced by what it reads and hears.

WARNER: Let's have a question back there in the middle, the gentleman in the light suit.

QUESTIONER: Hi. I'm Vaughan Turekian from American Association for the Advancement of Science.

I was actually wondering if we are doing a disservice by breaking out foreign policy debates and domestic policy debates given the fact that in fact these things seem more or less seamlessly going back and forth. Thank you.

WARNER: You know, to some degree I would agree on that. But one, the candidates really set the topics first of all. And it's said that it was Obama who really wanted the foreign policy debate first because he wanted the economic debate last. So it's all part of a negotiation. So the moderator really has nothing to do with that.

I do think, from the point of view of someone who's once done a debate, that there is something to be said in terms of follow up, in terms of coherence and conversation to generally doing one in the foreign area and one in the domestic, obviously in this international, global economic crisis and our own real financial meltdown, is both domestic and foreign. But I just think it can be a very useful way of making sure that each debate goes more deeply.

Now, the vice presidential debate, of course, because there's only one, runs the gamut, and both formats work.

Yes, back there. The lady right there in the peach.

QUESTIONER: Andy, I was --

WARNER: I'm sorry. Could you give your name, please?

QUESTIONER: Oh, Nancy Berg.

I was concerned about the U.N. statistic you gave, the declining the support. And yet, the public seems to be wanting stronger relationships with allies. And I wonder if you could give us some insight into why they wouldn't also be wanting to support the U.N.

KOHUT: Yeah. The one thing that I failed to mention there, Nancy, is that that number didn't just go down between 2004 and 2008, it's been going steadily down since the war in Iraq, even though the decision about the war in Iraq is not a popular one. The role that the U.N. played in that period in which Iraq was being debated somehow soured many Americans on the U.N., certainly it soured many Republicans and we've, for a long time, as you know, Nancy, have had a partisan gap on the U.N. certainly apparent in this poll.

But public support for the U.N. really hasn't recovered. If anything, it's declined to a degree. I think the current decline reflects probably the broader retrenchment, but the longer-term decline probably has something to do with whether Americans see the U.N. as, quote-unquote, "on our side." That's strictly my speculation.

KALB: You know, I'm doing some research now on an interview that I'm going to do with Bill O'Reilly so if the U.N. does come up. And Bill reflects a point of view that Andy was alluding to a moment ago when he said that, oh, you know the U.N., what do the people do up there? They go out to lunch. There is a perception that the U.N. doesn't do anything.

One reason for that is, getting back to the media here, one reason for that is that there is very little coverage of the U.N. It is not in the public's mind. It's sort of a waste of money. It's off there on the side. There was a time not that long ago when the networks each had a U.N. correspondent, when most newspapers had bureaus there. That is no longer the case.

And so it is peripheral coverage. It's trickle-down coverage. It's whatever is there at the bottom of the day gets reported. And it's very, very rarely up front.

WARNER: I would also just add, Nancy, that I think a lot of the public doesn't associate -- when they see what UNHCR is doing with refugees around the world, other U.N. organizations that are very involved in crises of the day around the world, but they don't connect that with that big building, you know, on the east side of New York. And I think, again, part of that is a coverage issue, part of that is a U.N. marketing issue. So they really just see it as this collection of irrelevant diplomats.

Way in the back, the gentleman with the white hair there.

QUESTIONER: I guess that's me. (Laughs.)

WARNER: No. I'm happy to be -- maybe I should just point -- (inaudible). (Laughs.)

QUESTIONER: David Lampton of Johns Hopkins.

WARNER: Hi, David. Yes, hi. Forgive me.

QUESTIONER: I wanted to pick up on in the early part of the conversation, Margaret, you talked about the need to make distinctions and then talk about this distinction that both of you had between isolationism and internationalism, very traditional.

And I wonder if there isn't a liking thought, and this is what I'd like you to comment on. And that is that the basic fundamental foundations of our national power, I think, are widely perceived to be eroding -- economic, in particular, but also our education system and those kinds of underpinnings. And I wonder if most Americans wouldn't be attracted to a different formulation which is essentially we have to repair the underpinnings of our national power before we can be effective abroad. And if that's the logic, I mean, I don't find so much to disagree with that.

WARNER: I personally would totally agree with you. I think that's exactly -- (inaudible). And I think that's what, you know, partly these numbers reflect is American's sense that we don't really even have the capacity and we need to tend to our (knitting ?) first. And that's why I think it's all connected to the unease about America's -- that's why the wording of that question -- standing in the world, in one sense, is so intriguing. Because people could be answering yes if they mean militarily, people could answer yes we need to improve it economically, educationally as a sort of symbol of democratic ideals where we don't violate those ideals.

I mean, it stands in for all kinds of yearnings and sense of what America used to be not being anymore. And I do think that, in that sense, isolationism versus internationalism is a false dichotomy, certainly in this period in our history. And I think what Andy's numbers are saying is people are, one, realistic about our capabilities. We didn't even talk in detail about what they're really willing to do for energy independence. It's quite stunning. There's no ideological divide. They're willing to absolutely try everything that America has. That's where we should focus. And then when we're trying to project certainly power that we should be discriminating about it.

KOHUT: I agree with that. (Inaudible) -- one of the elements in these trends, (Mike ?), is frustration. Americans are frustrated with the rest of the world. They're frustrated with a lot of things. They're frustrated with themselves and the position that we're in. But they have a special frustration for the rest of the world, which Americans have never really bought onto the extent to which we are connected and need, in an integral way, are dependent on the rest of the world.

You ask a typical American, you know, can we go it alone, and you'll get a fair number of people who subscribe to the view, yeah, we can still go it alone.

KALB: You know, historically when the U.S. feels very strong, invulnerable, then they really don't give a hoot what the rest of the world says because we feel we know what we are supposed to do, and we're going to do it. It is when there is the beginning of an internal perception of vulnerability, then you begin to feel frustrated, fatigued and, you know, how long can we go on with this Middle East stuff. I hear that all the time. It's a sense of fatigue.

We didn't have that sense of fatigue when Nixon and Kissinger were running the show in the early '70s. There was a feeling that we could do it. There is not that feeling today.

(Cross talk.)

WARNER: -- from Vietnam.

KALB: Absolutely. The Middle East was a separate deal then, and it had to do with the perception that Nixon knew what he was doing in foreign affairs, knew how to handle the Russians, balancing off the Chinese, playing it as though we're on a chess board. There was a confidence that in this area he knew what he was doing, which made the Watergate thing so startlingly different.

WARNER: David, I just wanted to follow up, just making a comment on what Marvin said. Being in China earlier this year, I was struck by how Chinese are now, ordinary Chinese, very much feeling that way. I mean, I go to a number of -- you know, I've been to Pakistan and places like Kenya, and usually they're obsessed with what Americans think of them. Chinese are on their own trajectory and it reminded me if, you know, is this America in the '50s?

Yes, sir, right here, the third row -- or second row, either. The third row. (Laughter.) I don't want to start describing you anymore, but my eyes aren't very good.

QUESTIONER: Good morning. Tom McGellan, United States Army.

Gentlemen, can you please discuss the correlation between the polling statistics and future policy action. How informative are they? How predictive? How can policymakers use these numbers?

KOHUT: I would say just simply these numbers represent what the next president will inherit and how he will have to bring the public along to his policy point of view. Each president has the challenge of bringing the public, getting support from the public for international policies. They are generally one step removed from the lives of ordinary Americans so the president has a little more direct influence compared to domestic issues.

But this is the climate of opinion and a frame of reference that not only the president will have but also the members of Congress, who are closer to their constituents than the president is. They're going to feel these same pressures.

WARNER: Yes, Nelson Cunningham. You in the red tie. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: Hi, Nelson Cunningham with McLarty Associates.

The statistic that really jumped out at me was the strong decline in support for reducing the spread of AIDS and disease from 72 percent to 53 percent. That's nearly a 20-point decline. I think it's the largest one that you register. And yet, this is at a time when the president and the administration seem even more committed to spending money on these issues. There's a strong bipartisan consensus in Congress in support of increased support for these policies. Does this really reflect a fundamental view of the U.S. public that don't care about this? Or is this just getting crowded out by other issues?

KOHUT: I would vote for crowded out. I mean, I think that this is a perfect example of some of the kinds of things where people say -- I mean, if you looked at the question more fully, you'd see that while the percentage saying top priority has declined, the percentage giving it some priority still remains relatively high.

But all of these goals that are directed to the world outside of the United States are getting lower priority ratings because the focus is so internal.

WARNER: Yes, back there -- third from the back.

QUESTIONER: When you look at the poll from, you know, '93 to now, I mean, you can't help but be struck by the proliferation of 24-hour news channels. And you know, you mentioned Fox earlier and now MSNBC certainly has an editorial voice to it. How do you think that the fact that, you know, Americans are essentially getting their news from entities that they ideologically agree with is impacting these poll numbers? Thank you.

KOHUT: I'm going to give you a complicated answer to this. In 1993 and even before that because we have a longer-term series of questions on foreign policy values, there were differences between Republicans and Democrats on a wide range of foreign policy issues. But over the course of the '90s, the gap between the way Republicans and Democrats see things widened. It hasn't narrowed very much, even in recent years.

And the fact that we now have a media environment in which Republicans tend to watch Fox and Democrats tend to watch MSNBC and, to a certain extent, CNN may only be reinforcing that or it may be a response to this. But there's no question, for a variety of reasons, on foreign policy and domestic issues, the public has more partisan point of view than it did 15 years ago when we first started doing these surveys and certainly a greater partisan divide than just about everything compared to 20 years ago.

I'll say one more thing. However, there tends to be also some issues in which there is the potential for consensus. And people in the middle tend to sit -- these are the independents -- tend to sit between the Republicans and Democrats.

WARNER: And follow up to that, Marvin.

KALB: I was just going to add briefly that one of the saddest things in any judgment of the media of these days is that whereas up until recent times, the media was the place where you could turn, anybody could turn for fresh information they could trust about just about any issue in the world or in their country. That has now changed, and people, as Andy was alluding a moment ago, people now go where they feel comfortable. And if they feel comfortable with MSNBC and love Rachel, wonderful. If they feel much more comfortable with the Fox world, fine.

But what that has done is then deny most of the media the responsibility for presenting the news without reference to political preference. And that is a fundamental change that has taken place in the media in the last 20 years or so.

WARNER: Well, I would say it increases our responsibility to do that. Maybe that's what you meant.

KALB: Yeah. Well, it increases the responsibility of the few parts of the media that still deal with a common sense of responsibility to the public.

WARNER: But I would say, you know, this room is not a typical selection. I mean, the viewership of cable is still, you know, 1 million people a night, 800,000. I mean, it's just not -- it may be a lot of people in Washington, but I'm not sure that the people you are polling are necessarily, most of them, tuned in at all to it.

KOHUT: Very small numbers. The broadcast networks, even though they are in decline, still are the place where you have the largest congregations of people. But collectively, given the fact that we have 24-hour coverage, people sit and they catch little bits of cable.

And the other dimension, apart from the partisanship with respect to, you know, cable news is the shriek factor. We now no longer have just the Republican point of view and the Democratic point of view, we have a screaming Republican point of view and a screaming Democratic point of view. And it certainly doesn't add. I mean, it may influence the ways in which people see a variety of things, not the least of which is the media whose numbers continue to go down.

KALB: The numbers, though, are fascinating. They are no longer that modest on cable television. For example, MSNBC which used to attract 3(00,000) and 400,000 households a night, it's now 1.2 million. CNN is 1.4 to 6 million. Fox is over 2 million. So you're dealing collectively with a significant minority of the American people, and they are committed, they are interested, they are drawn to these programs.

KOHUT: Plus, we don't know what the (cumulative ?) is on this. I mean, you have 1.2 million and it --

WARNER: Explain the (cumulative ?).

KOHUT: Well, what the percentage of the net number of people who watch MSNBC or Fox or CNN over the course of the day. We know about the day parts, they're very small relative to what CBS or NBC or you guys get at 7:00, but we don't know what the (elapsed ?) and aggregate percentage of those.

WARNER: Yeah, but there's one other factor, too, and David Brooks has chronicled this so well. Is people more and more in America tend to live in communities where people are very like-minded politically. I mean, your political attitudes have become so associated with your cultural, sociocultural lifestyle -- are you religious or aren't you? I mean, people who live in Leesburg, Virginia are very different from people who live in Takoma Park, Maryland or in Georgetown. So I think maybe it's just an ideal we looked back on, but in small town where maybe people didn't talk about politics much because it wasn't made for polite conversation because you might have differences of opinion, but people of different even ideological persuasions were friends.

I've noticed a difference, Marvin, I'm sure you have in Washington. I came back here in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was elected. Go to party, and there would be Republicans and Democrats and people who worked on the Hill in both parties. And maybe I was just with a, you know, younger crowd or people who hadn't become too tied up with one point of view or another, but there were people who worked at the White House. That almost never happens (now ?).

KALB: You're right.

WARNER: People are very self-isolating.

Way in the back against the wall there.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Paula Stern, someone who has straddled domestic politics and foreign policy, written on the subject.

And I'd like to ask you folks why there is a concern that somehow a debate on foreign policy doesn't get into all of these economic and domestic questions, like our education system, like our economic clout, like foreign trade, like the energy crisis. These are foreign policy issues. They're also domestic policy, like sovereign wealth funds and whether they're sitting on the sidelines while we're trying to bail ourselves out up on Capitol Hill with President Bush. These are all intersected.

And so I'd like to ask whether we're asking the right questions in the polls and whether the press, when they set up these debates and organize these debates, are creating, if you will, divisions which no longer are valid for a globalized economy where the United States is debating whether to elect a president to be a leader.

WARNER: Well, I think that may be based on a misunderstanding. As I mentioned, the press doesn't set up the topic. Those are totally the product of the negotiations between the two campaigns. And then it's, frankly, totally up to the moderator to ask whatever questions they want. And I have no idea and I'm going to let, rather than have you continue --

(Off mike commentary.)

Of course they can. They can ask any questions they want to ask. I mean, those are the ground rules.

KOHUT: Well, there's no question that, you know, foreign and domestic issues, especially with respect to the economic impact of foreign affairs, are intermingled and integrated. But you also have to think about the way people think about things. And it's not clear that people think about those things in that way or that many people think about those things in that way.

And of course, there are explicitly domestic issues, and there are explicitly foreign issues. And you know, in a typical survey, what we do is we cover both. But in anticipation of the foreign policy debate, you have this poll that we structured.

WARNER: We have time for one more question.

Right here, sir.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. H.P. Goldfield, Stonebridge International and Hogan & Hartson.

How worried, if at all, is the American public about the ascendancy of Iran? And should they learn that Iran has nuclear weapons capabilities, does that change their view of what might happen, what should happen?

WARNER: Andy, you have some figures on that.

KOHUT: When we asked people an open-ended question, which country, which nation state represents the greatest threat to the United States, people have been saying Iran for some time. When we ask people on a probing question, how much of a threat is Iran's nuclear program, you get half the public saying there's no decline in concern about it. There are substantial worries about Iran as a nuclear threat and as a threat more generally.

WARNER: And didn't I notice, though, in your trend lines, I mean, over 15 years, there's been a huge increase.

KOHUT: That's right.

WARNER: In other words, it's not like Russia which has basically remained pretty constant or even China lately it's pretty constant.

KOHUT: But there's no consensus as to what to do about Iran.

KALB: You know, on the Iranian issue, the nuclear issue, there has been, for several years now, a lot of argument about how far ahead are they in building a bomb. That presumes that you know the answer that they ARE building a bomb. And there was a sense that in the U.S. intelligence community they were talking in terms of three to five years, the Israelis had a tighter timetable. There's a conflict between the two.

But what's very interesting, in the last couple of days, the IAEA put out a statement indicating definite concern that there has been a considerable step-up in that timetable. And then yesterday, the EU which normally keeps a respectful distance from this problem got into it and said it's now on a tight timetable.

Now, whether that means there is new intelligence all the way around suggesting a tight timetable or something has happened within Europe that makes the collective there more sensitive to the dangers inherent in an Iranian nuclear program, but that raises so many profoundly important questions such as, can you live with a nuclear Iran?

And people in the Middle East have very strong views about that, not just the Israelis, by the way. Quite a few Arab nations on the, quote, "American side," the moderate Arabs have the deepest concerns about whether they could allow this to go forward. So I think when we talk about the next president dealing with fundamentally important issues, that is going to be right up there on his plate, whether he likes it or not.

WARNER: And whether the public -- yeah --

KALB: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

WARNER: I want to thank Marvin Kalb and Andy Kohut for a fascinating morning. Thank you. (Applause.)

Thank you, all.







More on This Topic

Must Read

Alexander Burns writes that polling numbers are often contradictory, with irrationality transcending both party lines and opinions of the...