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ISIS Speech Offers Obama One Chance to Turn Bad Polls Around

Tonight is an opportunity to use political theater to turn things around for himself and his party.
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The latest NBC/WSJ poll shows that the past few months of foreign-policy crises -- especially regarding ISIS and Ukraine -- have taken a toll on President Obama and his party. Just 32% approve of his handling of foreign policy, an all-time low in the survey; the GOP has an 18-point advantage on which party deals best on foreign policy, an 11-point jump from a year ago; and Republicans hold a whopping 38-point lead on which party best ensures a strong national defense, their largest lead on this question in more than 10 years.

So whatever political advantage Democrats gained on foreign policy and national security after the Iraq war and Bin Laden’s death is, well, gone. That’s the backdrop to Obama’s 9:00 pm ET primetime speech on combating ISIS. It’s rare for a second-term president to get one moment to help turn things around. But that’s the opportunity he has tonight. “It might allow him to perhaps use September and October to be a more strongly perceived figure that he’s been,” NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R) says. Adds co-pollster Peter Hart (D): “This is a way he can be presented as a solid and strong leader.” Obama said he doesn’t do “theater” well as president. Well, tonight is an opportunity to use theater to turn things around for himself and his party.

What the president plans to say

A White House official tells NBC’s Kristen Welker that President Obama will tell the American public “how the United States will pursue a comprehensive strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. That will include ground combat from the Iraqi government, as well as from Syrian opposition rebels. And Obama will discuss how the U.S. is “building a coalition of allies and partners in the region and in the broader international community to support our efforts.”

Obama doesn’t need to do a lot of convincing

It’s also worth pointing out that Obama’s speech tonight is unusual for a president outlining a strategy for military action. Why unusual? Because the country is already there; in some ways, it’s the public trying to rally the Commander-in-Chief. According to our NBC/WSJ poll, 61% of American voters believe that the United States taking military action against ISIS is in United States’ interest, versus 13% who don’t. (Another 24% said they don’t know enough to have an opinion.) That’s a significant change when a similar question was asked last year about the U.S. taking possible action against Syria’s government after its reported use of chemical weapons. Back then, only 21% said action was in the nation’s interest, while 33% said it wasn’t. In addition, 40% of respondents say U.S. military action against ISIS should be limited only to air strikes; another 34% say it should include both air strikes and combat troops; and 15% say military action shouldn’t be taken. The radical shift to hawkishness by the public is driven almost exclusively by the beheadings. Americans paid more attention to that story than any other in the last five years.

The politics of immigration did change

Last Sunday, Obama said the politics of immigration “did shift” as a result of those unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S.-Mexico border. Well, our NBC/WSJ poll shows he’s right, as one of us pointed out last night. Per the survey, 53% support granting undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, while 45% oppose it. That’s down from last April, when 64% supported it and 35% opposed it. “That’s a big shift in American attitudes,” says McInturff. “And it’s a reminder of how much the Central American children story has ruptured and re-raised this topic in a difficult way.” One of the biggest reasons for the shift is the decline in support from Republicans. In April 2013, before the Senate passed a comprehensive deal that was ultimately rejected by the GOP-led House, almost half of Republicans -- 47% -- said they favored a path to citizenship. That number now is down to just 32%. (However, if offered more details about the requirements for citizenship, a majority – 64 percent – of self-identified Republicans still say they support it.) One place where the shift doesn’t seem to be happening is among Latinos, who support a pathway to citizenship by a 77%-13% margin.

Approaching the midterm tipping point

The other major headline from our new NBC/WSJ poll is how Republicans have the clear advantage heading into November’s midterms. Two-thirds of voters believe the country is headed in the wrong direction -- a higher percentage than at this point in the 2006 and 2010 midterm elections. Obama’s overall approval rating stands at 40%, tied for his all-time low in the poll. And Republicans hold a two-point advantage, 45%-43%, on which party should control Congress. That margin expands to 10 points – 50%-40% – in the states holding this year’s most-competitive Senate contests. “With 56 days until Election Day, our poll provides greater insight into what is likely to happen, and the news is not good for the Democrats,” says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Fred Yang (D). And get this: Our poll shows Republicans ahead on more issues (taxes, immigration, economy, foreign policy, deficit, defense) than Democrats (looking out for women’s interests, environment, abortion, health care). Folks, we are approaching the midterm tipping point where the numbers are beginning to turn against the president and his party. Democrats have about two weeks to right the ship or they could start to see this slip away in a bigger way than they may have anticipated. Again, that’s why tonight’s speech is so big.

If there’s any GOP wave, it won’t be a big one

Yet it’s also important to note that whatever big night Republicans MIGHT have in November, it won’t be a big wave. For one thing, the interest in the election isn’t there. Just 51% have a high interest (either a 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale) in the upcoming midterms, which is down from 57% in Sept. 2010 and 55% in Sept. 2006. What’s more, the NBC/WSJ poll shows that a majority of voters -- 53% -- believe that Washington will remain the same, no matter what happens on Election Day.

Hillary’s numbers keep coming back down the earth

Here is one final set of numbers from our NBC/WSJ to chew on: Hillary Clinton’s fav/unfav is now just 43%-41%. On the one hand, our poll measured 8 political figures, and the only two ABOVE water were Bill Clinton (56%-21%) and Hillary (43%-41%). Everyone else is either under water or treading it – Marco Rubio (21%-21%), George W. Bush (37%-38%), Barack Obama (42%-46%), Rand Paul (23%-27%), Mitt Romney (32%-39%), Jeb Bush (22%-30%). On the other hand, Hillary’s numbers are definitely come down to earth. When she left her secretary of state post, her fav/unfav was 56%-25%; last September she was at 51%-31%; and last month, she was at 44%-37%. It would not be a good sign for Clinton if she started her campaign next January in essentially a 1-1 favorability ratio, because favorable ratings drop even more once you become an active candidate.

Recapping last night’s primary results

In the final primary night of this election season, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo defeated primary challenger Zephyr Teachout by 62%-34% margin (not terrible, but hardly a resounding win for Cuomo)… Scott Brown got 49.5% of the vote winning the New Hampshire Senate GOP primary… Martha Coakley squeaked by Steve Grossman, 42%-36%, in getting the Massachusetts Dem gubernatorial nomination… Also in Massachusetts, Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) lost his primary to Dem challenger Seth Moulton, giving Democrats a better chance at holding on to that House seat… And Gina Raimondo won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Rhode Island. EMILY’s List has a potentially big moment in picking up two female governors – Coakley and Raimondo. But Coakley’s race, in particular, will be competitive.

First Read’s Race of the Day: AZ-1: Kirkpatrick vs. Tobin

Incumbent Rep.Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) finally knows who her challenger will be after Republican House Speaker Andy Tobin was declared the winner of a close three-way contest in the state’s late primary. Kirkpatrick easily won her House seat in 2008, lost it in the 2010 GOP wave, and nabbed it back in 2012 after a redistricting shuffle. Tobin was the favorite of national Republicans for this Flagstaff-area seat, but the tough August primary means that he’ll head into the general election still smarting from the intra-party fight – and with a big cash disadvantage.

Countdown to Election Day: 55 days

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