The Memo: Syrian strike changes little for polarizing Trump

The Memo: Syrian strike changes little for polarizing Trump
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump threatens ex-intel official's clearance, citing comments on CNN Protesters topple Confederate monument on UNC campus Man wanted for threatening to shoot Trump spotted in Maryland MORE’s missile strike on Syria has drawn favorable reviews from critics and only scattered criticism from Democrats. 

Yet unlike other Republican presidents who enjoyed a boost in the polls from their military actions, early signs suggest Trump may not be politically rewarded.

The president’s allies argue Trump’s order of a missile strike in response to a chemical weapons attack allegedly carried out by the Syrian government was admirably decisive and contrasted favorably with former President Obama’s hand-wringing when confronted with a similar situation in the first years of Syria's ongoing civil war.

Republicans who have been critical of Trump in the past, including Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain15 senators miss votes despite McConnell's criticism of absentees What crime did Manafort allegedly commit? Primary challenge to Trump? It could help him in 2020 MORE (Ariz.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP lawmakers raise concerns over research grants to colleges with Confucius Institutes Paid family leave could give new parents a much-needed lifeline GOP looks to injure Nelson over Russia comments MORE (Fla.), have offered him praise.

“I think he made the right decision and he handled it in an impressive manner,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant, a staffer for Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, “and I would expect polls to reflect that in the coming weeks.”

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released on Monday afternoon showed that 51 percent of U.S. adults supported the action, whereas only 40 percent were opposed. 

Those are good figures for the president, who is dealing with approval ratings that are historically low for a commander in chief in his first 100 days in office.

But the same poll indicated that just 25 percent said the action made them more confident in Trump’s leadership abilities. Twenty-eight percent said it made them less confident, while 43 percent said the events had made no difference to their opinion of Trump.

A CBS News poll showed a similar dichotomy. Fifty-seven percent of Americans expressed general approval for targeting Syrian military facilities in response to the use of chemical weapons, while only 36 percent disapproved. 

But just 41 percent in the CBS poll said they were confident about Trump’s ability to handle the situation in Syria, while 54 percent said they were “uneasy” on that point. 

The finding hints at a central difficulty for Trump. He is a deeply polarizing figure atop an already-divided nation. That seems to make it less likely that he will enjoy the kind of polling bump that has often accrued to previous presidents in the wake of military action.

“Polarization is cooked into the electorate right now,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “It is very hard to move people, because people look at events through a partisan lens. Trump himself is a very partisan figure, and he generally plays to that.”

There could be some factors moving in Trump’s favor in this instance.

A number of Democrats were broadly supportive of his actions in Syria. His 2016 election opponent, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton to headline trio of DNC fundraisers: report Allegations of ‘Trump TV’ distract from real issues at Broadcasting Board of Governors Chelsea Clinton: Politics a 'definite maybe' in the future MORE, had recommended a remarkably similar course to the one Trump pursued in a public interview last Thursday, just hours before Tomahawk missiles struck Shayrat Air Base. Internationally, there was not any wide-scale outcry against the action, though reactions varied by country. 

White House press secretary Sean Spicer asserted at his regular media briefing on Monday that Trump’s handling of the episode had been “widely praised domestically and internationally.”

And Conant predicted a breeze in Trump’s direction.

“I think people obviously have very strong feelings about Trump, and so his numbers are always going to be ‘stickier’ than other presidents,” he said. “That said, even congressional Democrats were supportive of his decision to strike Assad, so I do think you will see some Democrats giving him a fresh look over the next few weeks.”

There is not much sign of that happening immediately, however.

The Gallup daily tracking poll that measures Trump’s job approval has remained essentially static throughout the weekend, though one more day of polling will be required before the full effects of the Syrian strike are seen. In the poll released Monday, Trump’s job performance was disapproved of by 53 percent of adults, while only 40 percent approved.

Gallup also found that 50 percent of adults approved of the action in Syria, while 41 disapproved. But its polling director, Frank Newport, noted that those figures were “historically low compared with reactions to previous U.S. military actions.”

Gallup's figures showed that 76 percent of Americans approved of the war in Iraq at its inception, and 90 percent approved of the war in Afghanistan. But other conflicts were much more divisive even in their early days. During President Clinton’s time in office, military interventions in Kosovo and in Haiti won only narrow majority support.

There is also the political zeitgeist to consider. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan became deeply unpopular over time and sapped the American public’s appetite for involvement in foreign conflicts. Politicians who are deeply skeptical of military interventions have been in the ascendant in both parties, including Sens. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersOvernight Health Care: Azar defends approach on drug rebates | Trump presses Senate to act quickly on opioid crisis | Kentucky governor's Medicaid lawsuit tossed Poll finds Libertarian Senate candidate running ahead of GOP in New Mexico Senate GOP targets musicians Ben Folds, Jason Isbell as 'unhinged left' ahead of rally for Dem candidate MORE (I-Vt.) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulPaul seeks to cut off Planned Parenthood funds via massive spending bill Arizona GOP Senate candidate defends bus tour with far-right activist Trump plays 'quick round of golf' with Rand Paul in New Jersey MORE (R-Ky.). 

As a candidate, Trump himself was much more dubious about military actions than is usual for a Republican presidential candidate. At a primary debate in South Carolina a little more than a year ago, Trump accused former President George W. Bush of lying the nation into war in Iraq.

That being so, it seems likely that the military strike in Syria may be a one-off rather than a preamble to any further major escalation of American involvement.

Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, said that, even if the polls look distinctly tepid for Trump now, the ordering and execution of military action could make the 45th president look more conventional.

“You have the more general phenomenon of rallying around the flag,” he said. “It is yet another thing that makes Trump look more like what we think of when we think of an American president.”

But others were not so sure.

“This was a single missile strike, and it is not clear that it changes anything,” said Zelizer, the Princeton professor. “It’s not clear to me that anything here is going to make people think he is a wonderful commander in chief or a great president.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.