The US public’s views on China and Iran have hardened in the run-up to November 6 elections, according to a poll released Friday that found sharp partisan gaps over issues including support for Israel.
The Pew Research Center poll gave President Barack Obama a 47-43 percent edge on Mitt Romney on which would be better on foreign policy, a sharp gain for the challenger who trailed by 15 points on the same question a month earlier.
Released ahead of the candidates’ debate on foreign policy Monday, the poll gave Obama a small advantage on handling Iran’s nuclear program and the Arab spring, while Romney was ranked higher on dealing with China’s trade policies.
The Pew poll said that 49 percent of Americans believed it was more important to get tough on China than to build a stronger relationship with the Asian power, a reverse from March 2011 when 53 percent prioritized strong ties.
“We do see a change in opinion about China. The public is much more inclined to get tough with China about trade policies than it was a year ago,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.
Romney and Obama have both campaigned vowing a firm line on China, with the Republican challenger pledging that if he elected he would immediately declare that Beijing is manipulating its currency to boost its exports.
Obama entered office seeking a broader relationship with the rising power but says he has raised a record number of trade complaints against Beijing and has boosted military support to regional nations which accuse Beijing of growing assertiveness.
The poll also found a slight hardening of views on Iran, with 56 percent saying it was more important to take “a firm stand” against its contested nuclear program rather than to avoid military conflict, up from 50 percent when the question was asked in January.
But a mere nine percent of voters thought the president should focus more on foreign policy than domestic issues, a sharp drop from some 40 percent in 2007 when the United States was embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden was still alive.
“A lot of the fall-away, obviously, has to do with lessening concern about terrorism as a national security threat,” Kohut said.
The finding is consistent with other recent polls which show Americans are more inward-looking after the wars during George W. Bush’s presidency and that the US public prefers cooperation with allies rather than going it alone.
The poll found strong gaps in views on several foreign policy issues between Republicans and supporters of Obama’s Democratic Party.
Nearly half of Republicans said the United States did not back Israel enough, with only 13 percent saying Washington was too supportive.
Among Democrats, only nine percent said the United States was insufficiently supportive of Israel and 25 percent said that Washington was too supportive, with most saying the current level was “about right.”
Obama has had an uneasy relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has taken a hard-line on Iran and the Palestinians, leading Romney to vow solidarity with Netanyahu.
But Kohut said the partisan gap did not emerge due to recent events and that Republicans have long been more enthusiastic about Israel, in part due to overwhelming support for the Jewish state among white evangelical Christians.
In line with polls in recent years, 60 percent of Americans said the United States should remove troops as soon as possible from Afghanistan. Obama and US allies plan to pull troops by 2014, ending America’s longest war.
Almost half of Republicans agreed with removing troops quickly. Romney has largely supported the 2014 pullout but has said he would not have set a clear deadline as it emboldens the Taliban.
The poll surveyed 1,511 adults from October 4 to 7 — in the immediate aftermath of the first presidential debate in which Obama’s performance was poorly reviewed. The survey had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.