Juan Williams: Obama’s October Surprise

Get ready for bombs bursting in air and this election’s October Surprise – President Obama’s air strikes to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.

{mosads}Last week a Fox News poll identified a phenomenon that my friend, pollster Dana Blanton, dubbed “The ISIS effect.”

“Equal numbers of voters now say terrorism is the most important issue to their vote as say the economy – 41 percent say each will be ‘extremely’ important in their decision,” Blanton wrote. She later noted “four years ago [in the 2010 midterms dominated by Republicans], 57 percent said the economy would be ‘extremely’ important while 41 percent said terrorism.”

Initially political fall-out from the murders of two Americans and one British citizen, all beheaded by ISIS, seemed to be another drag on President Obama’s already mediocre approval rating. The president was heavily criticized for failing to take the fight to ISIS before their barbaric acts and then for the lack of a clear strategy to defeat them.

But in the last week polls show public opinion shifting in the president’s favor.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reported 62 percent of voters supported “the decision President Obama made when it comes to taking action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.”

Pew polling last week found support for the president’s plan is coming from both sides of the political spectrum. As Pew described it: “And in a rare display of bipartisanship, majorities of both Republicans [64 percent] and Democrats [60 percent] approve of the president’s plan.”

A Rasmussen poll similarly found 66 percent of likely U.S. voters support President Obama’s plan to use airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against ISIS.

The downside of the polling for Democrats is a lot of skepticism about the likely success of the president’s plan. The Journal poll reported 31 percent said they have little confidence that U.S. will be able to eliminate “the threat posed by ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria.” However, a plurality of 37 percent said they had “some” confidence in the effectiveness of airstrikes and 28 percent said they had “quite a bit” or “a great deal” of confidence in success.

To my political eyes these poll numbers point to the biggest unknown of the fall campaign season. Will Americans react with political scientists refer to as the “Rally Around The Flag” effect for a national fight to take out a rising terrorist threat? This is exactly what has happened to every president engaged in a fight to protect the nation.

The most dramatic recent example was the surge of popularity for President George W. Bush when he sent U.S. forces into Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Before then, deep political divisions stemming from the disputed 2000 presidential election characterized his presidency.

President George H. W. Bush got a similar boost in support during the first Gulf War. However, that support faded by the next year and the 1992 Presidential election when Bush lost to Bill Clinton.

In this midterm race there simply is not enough time for such a dramatic reversal. Even if the skeptics are right and the airstrikes prove insufficient to diminish the threat from ISIS the subsequent dispatch of American forces to do a time-limited job of clearing out the bad guys is likely to stir even more patriotic fervor.

The president’s leadership role during this fight has the potential to pump up his public approval and that will benefit several Democrats locked in close senate races.

This year’s midterms have shown no sign of a GOP ‘wave election’ despite the president’s mediocre approval ratings and high number of senate races taking place in reliably Republican states. The problem for the Republicans in Congress is that they have even worse approval ratings that the president. A Washington Post/ABC poll reported last week that 72 percent of Americans say they disapprove of Republicans in Congress. That is 18 points worse than the president and 11 points worse than Congressional Democrats.

An upswing in the president’s approval rating as the nation gets in line behind the commander-in-chief could tip the outcome of a political fight now based on voter turnout and last minute advertising. The New York Times’ statistical analysis of the midterms was summarized as “who’s more unloved, Obama or the GOP”?

The Republican response to the ISIS threat has been to criticize the president for not immediately putting U.S. forces on the ground. The flaw with that argument is that polls show voters, both Republicans and Democrats, consider that a step too far and certainly premature at this juncture.

The Republican House narrowly voted to give the President authority to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight ISIS in a ground war. It was a sad reminder of why the public has such a low opinion of the Republican House. This was not a vote on money but only authority to begin the job. Are they trying to create a situation in which American soldiers are once again at war in the Middle East?

During the floor debate last week Rep. Adam Kinzinger [R-Illinois] criticized Republicans voting against the bill: “What would our allies think if we rejected the president’s request?” he asked.

To be clear, Republicans remain a slight favorite to win enough seats to claim the majority of the U.S. Senate. But the twists and turns of war have the capacity to create one legendary October political surprise.

Juan Williams is an author and 
political analyst for Fox News Channel.

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