(Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Even though public opinion of Congress is at near record lows, a new Pew Research Center poll suggests a strong majority, 61 percent, believe that Congress, not the president, should have final authority on a decision to strike Syria for its use of chemical weapons.
"Who should have the final authority for deciding whether the U.S. should conduct military airstrikes against Syria?" Pew asked in the Sept. 4-8 poll of 1,506 adults. (The margin of error is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points for the full sample.)
Only 30 percent chose President Barack Obama. Nine percent were undecided.
Obama's job approval, though, is at 43 percent, 29 percentage points higher than Congress' most recent job approval rating, according to Gallup.
Congressional approval has hovered in the mid-teens all year. For 2012, Congress averaged a 15 percent approval rating, the lowest since 1974, when Gallup began rating congressional approval.
Historically, presidential job approval is almost always higher than congressional job approval.
There are at least three possible explanations for why Americans strongly disapprove of Congress yet want it to have the final say on a military strike against Syria.
First, even as many Americans say they disapprove of the work of Congress, there is likely an underlying level of respect for the institution. Congress is, after all, the branch of government designed to be closest to the will of the people it represents.
Second, Americans may view the Syria decision as the proper role of Congress. Congress was given a role in war-making under the U.S. Constitution – only Congress can declare war. Even Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel argued that presidents should get the approval of Congress before military actions, when they were senators and before they joined the executive branch.
Third, the data show a partisan split on the issue, with most of the support coming from Republicans. So, with the question set up as one of supporting Congress versus supporting Obama, many Republicans may be choosing Congress because it is the "not-Obama" option.
Among Republicans, 75 percent chose Congress while only 19 percent chose Obama. Democrats, on the other hand, were about evenly split – 47 percent chose Congress and 45 percent chose Obama. (Independents were, as usual, near the average for the full sample.)
For comparison, in Oct. 2002, a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll asked a similar question about invading Iraq with ground troops. A Republican, George W. Bush, was president at the time. At that time, a majority, 57 percent, wanted Congress to make the decision. (Congress did give approval before the eventual invasion.) There was also, though, a partisan split, but in the opposite direction. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans thought Bush should have the final authority while 71 percent of Democrats thought Congress should have the final authority.