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Americans hate Obama's foreign policy

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Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

American public approval of President's Obama's foreign policy has hit an all-time low, according a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. It found that only 31 percent of Americans approve of Obama's handling of foreign policy, while 61 percent disapprove — a yawning 30 point gap.

This isn't just about ISIS — approval of Obama's foreign policy has been declining since December 2012. But the further downturn coincides with rising popular support for more aggressive US action against ISIS, and Republicans are increasingly campaigning against Obama's ISIS policies. All of this means that foreign policy and ISIS could become increasingly prominent political issues, and in ways that bode poorly for Obama and his approach to the crises in the Middle East.

Obama's foreign policy woes aren't likely to affect the midterms much

Obama's foreign policy approval rating has been declining steadily since December 2012, which means you can't blame it all on ISIS. And the decline in his approval rating on foreign policy does not appear to correlate all that closely to his overall approval rating. Here's what that looks like for the same time period:

The two charts don't seem to rise and fall at the same time, indicating that foreign policy is not defining Obama's overall approval rating so far.

That means foreign policy probably won't determine the midterms. As Cornell political scientist Sarah Kreps explains, three factors basically shape the outcome of midterm elections: presidential approval ratings, how many seats the president's party holds in Congress, and the state of the economy.

Still, even if foreign policy doesn't determine the midterm elections, it could still guide how its winners talk about ISIS and what to do about it.

Popular opinion is becoming more hawkish toward ISIS

A US soldier with an Iraqi child in Baghdad, 2008. Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

A US soldier with an Iraqi child in Baghdad, 2008. (Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, American support for deploying US ground troops against ISIS has risen, from 34 to 41 percent. An additional 35 percent said supported airstrikes only.

It makes sense that support for ground troops would rise as Obama's approval rating on foreign policy policy falls. There's strong public demand for fighting ISIS, which means opposition to Obama's policies are, for now, likely to empower hawkish voices. And what could be more hawkish than sending in ground troops?

The media coverage of ISIS also matters. A study of terrorism coverage shows that the more mass often that media outlets portray a terrorist group as a threat, the more likely the public is to support hawkish action against it.

You already see this playing out in the 2014 Congressional elections. A rising Republican campaign argument is that Obama and Democrats are weak on ISIS. Democrats are basically playing defense, arguing that they're more hawkish than Republicans say they are, all of which makes the political conversation more hawkish.

All of this gives political voice to any public constituency for a US ground invasion. While that public support might peter out, it could also continue rising. Calls for a ground invasion — though widely opposed by policymakers, and thus unlikely to happen — could become more common, if only as a way to hammer Obama.

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