Mark S. Mellman: The limits on presidential leadership

Mark S. Mellman: The limits on presidential leadership
© Lauren Schneiderman

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulRelations with Latin America sour under Trump GOP chair urges passage of Homeland Security cyber legislation Pa. GOP 'disappointed' by rep retiring after filing deadline MORE (R-Texas) demonstrated that he is certainly not qualified to chair the “intelligence” committee, by mindlessly repeating that “the president of the United States is the only person” who can stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from aggression several times during a brief interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday. 

Sometime, I may describe other problems with this argument, but here I will focus on just one limitation on a president’s power: public opinion. 

Academics debate it, but policymakers certainly believe that in our democracy public opinion constrains foreign policy. Leaders don’t blindly follow polls, but public opinion is seen as setting limits, ruling some options out. Both former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger codified a lesson they took from Vietnam: Action overseas requires the support of the American people. While they focused on military action, the implications are broader.  

As much as McCaul and I want a more active role for the U.S. in Ukraine, the Middle East and elsewhere, we are in the minority. 

A massive Pew study, completed in March, revealed a record high 60 percent saying, “We should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home.” Only a third (35 percent) thought, “It’s best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs.” By every measure, isolationism is at a new peak. 

Isolationist sentiments permeate public reaction to the world crises now facing us. In part, Americans don’t think it matters. A Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll (before the downing of the Malaysian airliner) found only 38 percent seeing Russia’s “territorial ambitions” as a “critical threat to the vital interests of the United States.” (Imagine what that number would have been during the Cold War.) In a post-shootdown YouGov survey, only 18 percent wanted the U.S. to “get involved in Russia’s dispute with Ukraine.”

While there is some hangover from the “you break it, you own it” attitude that prevailed with respect to Iraq, only 39 percent believe today that the U.S. has a “responsibility to do something about the violence in Iraq.”  We didn’t break Syria, so at the height of attention on the fighting there in December, an even lesser 27 percent believed the U.S. had any responsibility to stop the violence that has killed more than 100,000 people. 

With numbers like that, no president can engage strongly with the world confident that he or she is meeting the Weinberger Test or is in consonance with the Powell Doctrine. 

In fact, the ambit for presidential leadership in world affairs is much wider. When presidents take action that seems to work, people rally behind them.

Unfortunately, most of the evidence comes from situations involving military force. Americans opposed bombing North Vietnamese targets in Hanoi and Haiphong 58 percent to 42 percent until we did. Then support skyrocketed to 85 percent. 

Just after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, only 32 percent supported sending U.S. troops. After then-President George H.W. Bush announced troops would be sent, support for his decision jumped to 77 percent.

Before former President Clinton committed U.S. forces in the Balkans, a majority of Americans opposed the idea. After the military effort was engaged, a majority supported it. 

Before the Iraq War, only 29 percent supported U.S. action without U.N. approval. Yet, immediately after hostilities began, in direct contravention of the U.N., 75 percent expressed support.

Clinton’s use of the military in the Balkans was for humanitarian reasons, but we have at least one instance where engagement with peacemaking paid political dividends.  When President Carter concluded the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty with Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Anwar Sadat, his approval shot up by 13 points. 

In the end, public opinion only appears to be a major constraint on foreign policy. McCaul notwithstanding, Obama cannot stop Putin singlehandedly, but presidents enjoy much greater freedom of action overseas than polls suggest. 


Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.