Obama Slips on International Affairs - A New Challenge on Top of the Old Ones

Barack Obama's approval rating on handling international affairs has dropped under water for the first time in his presidency in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, a further challenge as he seeks to regain his footing in his second term.

The shift is a blow particularly since it directly follows an attempt by Obama to redefine his foreign policy, including a major address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point last week. He's faced criticism on fronts ranging from Russia's annexation of Crimea to newfound assertiveness by China, continued civil war in Syria and the challenges of Afghanistan's future.

See PDF with full results and charts here.

The reset effort looks unsuccessful so far: At 41 percent, Obama's approval rating for handling international affairs is down slightly, by 6 points, from early March, and down further, by 13 points, since his re-election, to a career low. Fifty percent disapprove, a new high, with those who strongly disapprove outnumbering strong approvers by 2-1.

In further criticism on the international front, 58 percent say the Obama administration has tried to cover up the facts about the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, essentially the same as sentiment on the issue a year ago. Fewer, but still half - 51 percent - favor a fresh round of congressional hearings.

Some respite may be in the offing: While Obama gets an even 45-45 percent rating on handling one central element of U.S. foreign policy, the situation in Afghanistan, that blossoms to 77 percent support - including 57 percent "strong" support - specifically for his plan, announced last week, to remove most U.S. forces there. Even among Republicans and strong conservatives, hardly Obama fans, six in 10 support the drawdown.

Here at home, further, the president escapes substantial blame for the veterans' hospitals scandal that forced a Cabinet resignation last week. But his weak ratings on domestic issues, notably the economy and the health care law, continue to damage Obama and his party, and his lost ground on international affairs only adds to his to-do list.

Still, this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, suggests that Obama's spring could be worse. Results released yesterday found broad support for proposed regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions, a new initiative of Obama's. And his job approval overall has ticked up to 46 percent, from a career-low 41 percent in late April. But 51 percent disapprove; the president hasn't seen a net positive approval rating since last July, nearly a year ago.

Domestic issues dominate public concerns, and here the president's performance remains more unpopular than popular. Fifty-three percent disapprove of his handling of the economy, vs. 43 percent who approve. Fifty-six percent disapprove of his handling of the implementation of the new health care law, vs. 39 percent approval. And half view his work on immigration negatively, up 9 points in the past year as the issue has bogged down in Congress. Just 38 percent approve.

Across these, moreover, intensity of sentiment is sharply against the president, with strong disapproval exceeding strong approval by roughly 2-1 margins.

Other presidents have done worse. At roughly this point in 2006, Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, had a then career-low 33 percent approval rating overall, 13 points lower than Obama's today, with 38 percent approval on handling the economy, 34 percent on immigration and 32 percent on the war in Iraq.

2014 ELECTION/ISSUES - Those comparisons may be cold comfort to Democrats today. In mid-May 2006, en route to their midterm takeover of the House and Senate, Democratic candidates for Congress led Republicans by 52-40 percent among registered voters. Today the same matchup is an essentially even 47-45 percent, and it's +2 Republican, 48-46 percent, among those who say they'll vote for sure.

Narrowing further, to the likeliest midterm voters, customarily favors the GOP. That means the Democrats, given their usual deficit in turnout, want a substantial lead among registered voters to stave off midterm losses. They've been nowhere near it since the partial federal government shutdown last fall.

Issue concerns underscore the Democrats' challenges and the Republicans' opportunities. Obama's ratings are weak both on the top issue that Americans say will inform their midterm vote choices - the economy - and on one of the next-tier issues, the Affordable Care Act.

Alongside Obamacare are the federal budget deficit and "the way Washington is working," fraught ground for both parties. Others, some of them potentially more helpful to the Democrats, receive lower priorities, including issues of special concern to women, immigration, global warming and gay marriage.

All these provide plenty of room for the to-and-fro of the midterms. For example, Obama's approval rating for handling the economy, while still weak, is 8 points better than his career low, 35 percent in October 2011, and strong disapproval of his economic performance is 12 points off its peak. Economic progress - or its absence - should prove crucial.

Divisions among groups, naturally, are of interest as well. The gender gap is wider than it customarily winds up in midterms; among women, registered voters favor Democrats over Republicans for Congress by a 10-point margin, while among men, it's Republicans +9.

Whites favor GOP candidates by 16 points, with one exception; college-educated white women provide a continued toehold for Democratic candidates. Nonwhites, for their part, prefer Democrats by 67-23 percent.

There's also the potential influence of the Tea Party political movement. Thirty-nine percent of Americans support the Tea Party, about average in the past three years, including 11 percent who do so strongly. But more are opposed - 46 percent - including 24 percent strongly opposed.

By beating back Tea Party candidates in a number of high-profile primaries this season, more traditional Republicans may bolster their chances in the political center. That said, their Democratic opponents may have pushback in suggesting that the GOP's mainstream has moved in the Tea Party's direction.

Come Election Day, though, a central factor is likely to be Obama himself. Among registered voters who approve of his job performance, 81 percent currently favor the Democrat in their congressional district. Among those who disapprove of the president, 72 percent back their local Republican candidate. As goes the president's popularity, then, so, to a large degree, go his party's fortunes.

HEAT OR LIGHT? - Two specific issues of the day remain wildcards in political terms, with, at least so far, more heat than light in terms of their impact.

One is a new congressional investigation focused on the attack that killed a U.S. diplomat and three others in Benghazi. As noted, echoing Republican criticisms, 58 percent think the Obama administration has tried to cover up the facts rather than honestly disclosing what happened (it was 55 percent a year ago). Somewhat fewer, however, either support launching a new investigation, 51 percent, or disapprove of the way then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handled the issue, 50 percent.

Next is the scandal over the concealment of long patient wait times at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals: Nearly all, 97 percent, call this a serious issue (82 percent, very serious), and 65 percent say Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, did the right thing by resigning. At the same time, 60 percent say Obama himself deserves at most only limited blame - "just some" or none - for these problems; 38 percent assign him more blame, but few - 19 percent - give him "a great deal" of it.

One question that summarizes these competing issues asks Americans whom they trust more to handle the main problems the nation faces - Obama or the Republicans in Congress. A year and half ago, on a roll after his re-election, Obama led in this measure by 15 points. Six months ago that had contracted to an even split, 41-41 percent. Today it's almost as close - 43 percent for Obama, 38 percent for the Republicans - tight enough to leave control of the political high ground, up to the midterms and beyond, very much up for grabs.

METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone May 29-June 1, 2014, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,002 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including design effect. Partisan divisions are 33-24-35 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents.

The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.