Russia, Snowden and President Obama

August 14, 2013, 8:45 PM UTC

(Week of 8/12/2013) The President receives limited support for one of his latest foreign policy decisions. Although Americans in the latest Economist/YouGov Poll clearly disapprove of Russia’s decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency analyst who leaked information about U.S. electronic surveillance, they also think President Obama has not done a good job handling this situation in particular – nor in handling relations with Russia overall.

The cancellation of his one-on-one summit with Russian President Putin gets a mixed response from the public – just about as many disapprove of the cancellation of the meeting (planned to coincide with the September G-20 summit) as approve. 

Opinion about the cancellation is, as is most opinion about the President, very partisan. Democrats approve of the President’s decision 48% to 25%, while Republicans disapprove 60% to 25%.

Public opinion about Snowden and his actions turned around in recent weeks, but that does not mean Americans find the President’s management of the case (and by extension of the surveillance program itself) positive. The public’s immediate reaction in June, after Snowden leaked the information about government electronic and phone metadata surveillance, was to take Snowden’s side. However, he began to lose support after traveling to Moscow where he spent several weeks in the airport transit area before he was granted temporary asylum by the Russian government. An action which Americans disapprove of. Now, the public holds an unfavorable view of Snowden, disapproves of his original action of leaking information about government surveillance, and supports his prosecution. 

Though they have changed their minds about Snowden and what he did, Americans still see the importance of whistleblowing when necessary. 55% (and pluralities of both Republicans and Democrats) say leaking classified information is patriotic if it exposes wrongdoing.

There is little support for how the President has dealt with the Snowden situation. By 45% to 27%, the public disapproves of how the President has handled the Snowden case.

Those who view whistleblowing in general as patriotic are also more likely to support Snowden – and to disapprove of the way the President has handled the situation.

Before the President’s decision to cancel his bilateral meeting with President Putin, several polls, including this one, found support for the President continuing his trip to Russia, something which he is doing. Those earlier polls, however, did not distinguish between the bilateral meeting and the G-20 summit.

After four and a half years in the White House, the President now must focus on relations with Russia – something Americans do not think he is doing especially well. In this week’s poll, only 29% approve of how President Obama is handling relations with Russia; 47% disapprove. 

There appear to be two reasons for the negative assessment. Despite all the changes that have taken place in the last few decades, including the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Americans refuse to see Russia as a friendly country. Nearly half call it unfriendly or an enemy, while less than a third think the country is friendly to the U.S. 

At the same time, more than three in four think it is important for the U.S. to have friendly relations with Russia – something that is definitely not the case today.

The second reason for the negative assessment may be the President himself. When they first elected Barack Obama in 2008, Americans never expected that relations with Russia would be important in his Administration. The economy – and the war in Iraq – were more critical issues. A Gallup pre-election poll conducted in August of that year found that Americans believed the current President’s Republican opponent, John McCain, would do a better job when it came to relations with Russia. McCain led Obama on this issue 51% to 36%, even though Obama held a clear lead in the presidential horserace.

Once the President assumed office, he did well in those few polls that asked about his handling of relations with Russia (and there were very few). As recently as last year, a poll conducted by TNS for the German Marshall Fund, found Americans approving of the way the President was handling relations with Russia, 53% to 34%. This week more disapprove than approve.

In fact, approval of Barack Obama’s handling of Russia is even lower than his overall approval rating, which has remained in the mid- to low-forties for months. This week, 43% approve and 50% disapprove. 

Images:  Getty