An early poll on U.S. military action against Libya is in, and the news for the White House is mixed. On the positive side, Gallup found that 47 percent of respondents approved of the strikes as opposed to 37 percent that disapproved. That’s more support for the no-fly zone than we saw in the polls conducted before Operation Odyssey Dawn began. That’s not surprising. A president’s decision to act can move public opinion, at least for a time. It’s one variant of the rally-‘round-the-flag effect.
On the negative side, the 47 percent support number is the lowest initial support figure Gallup has found in any of the initial polls it has done on U.S. military actions over the past four decades. (Gallup didn’t poll for every operation.) Public support for sustained military actions tends to drop over time. Moreover, while presidents can push public opinion in one direction, critics (and events) can push it in the other. More polls should be out shortly. That will tell us whether the criticism President Obama is getting from opponents of Operation Odyssey Dawn are gaining traction with the public.
Gallup’s poll has one other worrisome piece of news for the White House. While majorities of self-identified Democrats (51 percent) and Republicans (57 percent) support Operation Odyssey Dawn, only a minority of Independents (38 percent) do. In fact, a plurality (44 percent) of Independents oppose it. Democratic support for military action is probably soft; many Democrats likely say they approve out of party loyalty. And independent voters are who the White House has been targeting ever since losing them in the congressional midterm elections.
Of course, success in Libya—read Qaddafi’s ouster—would turn even the most dismal poll numbers around in hurry.