PRINCETON, NJ -- Foreign affairs, the theme of Monday night's third and final presidential debate, has been one of President Barack Obama's stronger issue areas in the campaign in 2012, although whether that continues to be the case isn't clear. Gallup polling in September found Americans chose Obama over Republican Mitt Romney by 53% to 41% as the candidate better able to handle foreign affairs -- a 12-percentage-point advantage. That exceeded Obama's leads on healthcare, energy, Medicare and taxes, and contrasts with Romney's advantage on the economy and federal budget deficit.
Obama also led Romney 52% to 42% in public perceptions of who would better handle terrorism and other international threats, although more recently the two were tied on that issue -- 48% for Obama, 47% for Romney -- in the national component of a USA Today/Gallup swing-states poll.
How much foreign policy issues will matter to voters when casting their ballots on Nov. 6 is another question. Gallup's most recent measure of the Most Important Problem facing the country found scant mentions of Afghanistan, Iran, or even terrorism -- presenting a very different picture of what is on the public's mind as they prepare to vote in 2012 compared with what Gallup found in 2000 and 2004.
Additionally, Gallup polling earlier this year found significantly more Americans rating the economy as extremely or very important to their vote -- more so than terrorism and national security, 91% vs. 74%.
For most of Obama's presidency, he has earned higher marks from Americans for his handling of foreign affairs than his handling of the economy, most recently by a 12-point margin, 48% vs. 36%. And, quite notably, his overall job approval rating has more closely mirrored his foreign policy rating than his economy rating, suggesting Americans are holding him more accountable for foreign policy outcomes than economic outcomes.
The biggest sparks in the third debate may arise from any back-and-forth that ensues between the candidates over the Obama administration's handling of security for diplomatic staff in Libya, as well as its public statements since Sept. 11 about the role terrorism played in the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya on that date.
Other topics likely to come up include defense spending; the outlook for America's military presence in Afghanistan; U.S. policy toward the Israel-Palestinian conflict; U.S. policy toward unfriendly regimes in North Korea, Syria, and Iran; and U.S. trade relations with China.
Gallup data from various polls over the past year may shed some light on how Americans respond to the candidates' positions on these issues.
Want to Maintain or Improve National Defense, But Favor Less Defense Spending
Gallup's annual World Affairs poll, conducted in February found two-thirds of Americans generally comfortable with the country's ability to defend itself. In that poll, 54% said the nation's defense is about right and 13% said it is too strong. One third, 32%, said it was not strong enough.
At the same time, 41% said the country spends too much on defense, nearly twice the percentage saying it spends too little, 24%, while 32% said the spending is about right.
Ready to Leave Afghanistan
As recently as March, Americans endorsed the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, with the majority, 59%, saying that sending U.S. troops there was not a mistake. Nevertheless, given the choice, barely one in five, 21%, said U.S. troops should remain there indefinitely. One-quarter endorsed the plan to remove troops by the end of 2014 while half favored speeding up the withdrawal.
Wary of China
Half of Americans told Gallup earlier this year that they are very concerned about the impact that trade relations with China is having on the U.S. economy. Additionally, 73% said they are concerned about the amount of U.S. debt held by other countries, an issue highly relevant to U.S.-Chinese trade relations. Concern for both issues outranked the financial situation in Europe, of great concern to 44% of Americans.
Fifty-seven percent of Americans were very concerned about the economic impact of the political situation in Iran. This is on par with concern about trade relations with China, but lower than concern about U.S. debt held by other countries.
Other Gallup polling found Americans to be receptive to developing good relations with China, but has also underscored the trade imbalance as a major point of contention.
Overall, 41% of Americans have a favorable view of China, but the majority -- 56% -- have an unfavorable view. Additionally, 23% consider China America's greatest enemy, higher than North Korea and second only to Iran.
Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace
Americans have long expressed a partiality for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most recently, in Gallup's 2012 World Affairs poll, 61% said their sympathies lie more with the Israelis and 19% with the Palestinians. At the same time, 51% say they support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, while 37% oppose this.
While Americans are skeptical that peace will ever come to the region -- 60% doubt it will -- this support for a two-state solution suggests Americans nevertheless favor continued U.S. involvement in resolving the conflict. Along the same lines, Gallup polling in 2010 found 53% of Americans saying Obama had not been tough enough on the Palestinians and 43% saying he had not been tough enough on the Israelis.
With relatively high job approval ratings on foreign affairs and an advantage over Romney in public perceptions of which candidate can better handle both foreign affairs and terrorism, Obama enters the third presidential debate in a good position to confirm Americans' confidence in him on the issue. That assumes he can adequately address difficult questions about the recent death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens during a violent attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya.
Americans generally favor an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan, a solution to the Middle East conflict that safeguards Israel, continued strong national defense without additional defense spending, and greater equality in trade relations with China. Regardless of Obama's image on foreign policy, how closely the candidates' views match up to these issues in the debate could influence voters' choice in the election. However, with the economy looming large as the dominant election issue, it is not clear that any foreign policy issue will move voters unless it is also seen as an economic issue, such as could be the case with relations with China, or U.S. sponsorship of expensive wars in the Middle East.