SEPT. 17, 2014

For the first time in his presidency, more Americans disapprove of President Obama’s handling of terrorism than approve of it, as discontent about his management of foreign affairs and the fight against Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria weighs on an anxious and conflicted public, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

As Mr. Obama broadens the military offensive against Islamic extremists, the survey finds broad support for United States airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, but it also demonstrates how torn Americans are about wading back into battle in the Middle East. A majority is opposed to committing ground forces there, amid sweeping concern that increased American participation will lead to a long and costly mission.

With midterm elections approaching, Americans’ fears about a terrorist attack on United States soil are on the rise, and the public is questioning Mr. Obama’s strategy for combating the militant organization calling itself the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Most respondents say the president has no clear plan for confronting the group, and that he has not been tough enough in dealing with it.
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“He is ambivalent, and I think it shows,” Jennifer Shelton-Armstrong, a 45-year-old Democrat in Mission Viejo, California, said in a follow-up interview. “There is no clear plan.”

Mr. Obama has lost considerable ground with the public in the month since he announced military action against the Islamic State, which also saw the group release two videotapes showing the beheadings of American journalists. Fifty-eight percent now disapprove of his handling of foreign policy, a 10-point jump from a CBS News poll conducted last month. Fifty percent rate him negatively on handling terrorism, a 12-point increase from March, compared with 41 percent who rate him positively, while the rest had no opinion.

Taken together, the results suggest a profoundly unsettled public mood, with two-thirds of Americans surveyed saying the country is on the wrong track and half disapproving of how Mr. Obama is doing his job, a negative assessment that threatens to be a substantial drag on Democrats in November.

Still, the public is sending some mixed signals. For instance, while Americans give Mr. Obama low marks on handling terrorism, foreign policy and the Islamic State, they say they back the prescription he has laid out to counter the militants — airstrikes and no combat troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Respondents also said Republicans would do a better job on two of their top issues — terrorism and the economy — even though they disapprove of congressional Republicans in greater numbers than they do congressional Democrats.

The poll numbers present a steep climb for the president as he seeks to rally public support for the effort against the Islamic State, just as Democrats are seeking ways to motivate their core supporters, who include antiwar voters. Mr. Obama’s job approval ratings are strikingly similar to those of George W. Bush at the same point in his second term in office in 2006, when Americans’ war fatigue helped Democrats sweep both houses of Congress in what Mr. Bush later called “a thumping.”

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