Anti-American uprisings in the Middle East appear to be giving some voters pause about President Barack Obama's handling of foreign policy, providing an unexpected opening for Republican nominee Mitt Romney as he struggles to regain his campaign footing.
Mr. Obama has seen an 11-percentage-point swing in his foreign policy approval rating, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Wednesday and conducted after last week's attack on a consulate in Libya left the U.S. ambassador dead.
The drop follows stinging attacks on the President by Mr. Romney and other Republicans for "failing" to stand up for freedom of speech and criticizing the anti-Muslim video that sparked the riots before condemning Arab reaction to it. And it suggests Mr. Romney's tougher talk on Iran and unreserved backing of Israel may be resonating with more voters as instability in the Middle East threatens the security of Americans at home and abroad.
The Republican charges – including one by Newt Gingrich, who blasted Mr. Obama on Wednesday for referring to the Libya attack as "senseless violence" instead of "murder" – are aimed in part at firing up the GOP base and satisfying prominent Jewish donors, such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, unhappy with Mr. Obama's treatment of Israel. But they could work in Mr. Romney's favour among a broader swath of voters if the anti-U.S. violence escalates in the Muslim world.
While 49 per cent of registered voters still approve of the President's handling of foreign policy, the proportion is down from 54 per cent in August. The Wall Street Journal poll found that 46 per cent now disapprove, up six percentage points.
A separate Pew Research poll released Tuesday showed that 45 per cent of Americans who followed last week's attacks on U.S. missions in the Middle East "very closely" approved of Mr. Obama's handling of the crisis, while 48 per cent disapproved of Mr. Romney's comments on the situation. But that poll captured the opinions of only a minority of Americans.
The Wall Street Journal poll, which showed Mr. Obama with an overall 50 per cent to 45 per cent lead over Mr. Romney among likely voters, was taken before a secretly taped video emerged of the GOP nominee telling donors "there's just no way" for a Middle East peace agreement.
"I see the Palestinians as not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel," Mr. Romney said in the video of a May fundraiser posted on Tuesday by Mother Jones magazine. "We kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen."
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney conceded that Mr. Obama has not succeeded in bringing peace to the region, but added: "Leadership is about acknowledging the difficulty of the challenges you face and trying to tackle them. It is not pre-emptively announcing that they're too hard, so why bother."
Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, foreign policy is the only area where Mr. Obama's ratings have slipped. Indeed, the President is now even with Mr. Romney on the economy, depriving the GOP nominee of the only clear advantage he had held over Mr. Obama going into the November election.
That may be why Republicans have jumped on the Muslim protests to criticize Mr. Obama's management of the crisis and the Arab Spring. They argue the President's attempts to "appease" radical Muslims have backfired and weakened U.S. influence.
Mr. Gingrich, the ex-House of Representatives speaker and Mr. Romney's former rival for the GOP nomination, seized on Mr. Obama's reaction to the attack on the Benghazi consulate in Libya that killed U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others. On Sept. 12, Mr. Obama had said in his first statement on the attack: "While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants."
In an article posted Wednesday on the Foreign Policy website, Mr. Gingrich blasted the President for attempting to "soothe the feelings of the offended religious groups" in the same statement in which he was offering condolences to the families of the victims.
"There is no moral equivalency between an alleged offence to religious sensibility and the murder of a U.S. diplomat," Mr. Gingrich said. "The President does not actually condemn anyone for the ambassador's murder – nor does he even call it murder… Does he believe the American people accept the fact that the murder of an ambassador, a Foreign Service officer and two U.S. security personnel on the anniversary of 9/11 were merely acts of 'senseless violence?'"