ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, comes a new poll on U.S. airstrikes against Syria. The bottom line: Most Americans are against the idea. In fact, comparing the numbers Pew found since last Wednesday with those found in a similar sample a few days earlier, opposition to airstrikes is rising.
Well, Michael Dimock is director of the Pew Research Center and joins us. Welcome to the program once again.
MICHAEL DIMOCK: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: And what's striking here is not just how many Americans oppose airstrikes, but how many say they oppose them strongly.
DIMOCK: That's right. We're finding 45 percent in the new survey saying they strongly oppose airstrikes in Syria. Only 16 percent strongly favor the idea. So not only does the overall balance of opinion tilt against, but the intensity is even more tilted.
SIEGEL: And when we include all those who oppose airstrikes, it's a substantial majority.
DIMOCK: It is. Sixty-three percent now tell us they oppose airstrikes in Syria. That's up from 48 percent only a week ago. And that all came out of people who were uncertain a week ago. About a quarter of Americans said they weren't sure yet what we should do. Most of that uncertainty has turned into opposition.
SIEGEL: You're saying that this is all since the discussion of what to do about Syria has ramped up, and we've heard much more about it; opposition has increased.
DIMOCK: That's right. And it's all coming from people who are on the fence, and they're all tilting in one direction.
SIEGEL: What's the political breakdown here?
DIMOCK: Republicans have turned decidedly against this endeavor. A week ago, they were pretty split over whether we should or shouldn't go in, but now that's it's become a case the administration is making and Obama is making more stridently, Republicans are now 70 to 20 opposed to this idea, from being about split a week ago.
DIMOCK: Independents are also moving, if any direction, away from getting involved in Syria. Two-thirds of independents tell us they oppose the idea. And Democrats haven't moved at all. So while Obama has been making the case and his administration has been making the case, it hasn't built up any support within his own political debate.
SIEGEL: You asked people in this survey if the president has given a clear explanation for airstrikes, and a majority - 54 percent - say that he has not. But I'm struck by the fact that 35 percent say that he has explained it clearly, and that's more than the number who support the idea. So there's some Americans - I understand what the president's saying; I just don't agree with him.
DIMOCK: That's right, that's right. There are some people who feel that they get what the president's saying, and they just aren't ready to go along.
SIEGEL: What are the arguments that have the most traction with both supporters and opponents of airstrikes?
DIMOCK: Well, on the one hand, a majority of Americans agrees with the idea that we need to do something in response to the use of chemical weapons. Even among opponents of this action, about half say no, something has to be done here. They're just not persuaded that this is the action. But on the other side, the big concern here is that this is going to lead to more problems than solutions. So an overwhelming majority of Americans - about three-quarters - say they think that military strikes in Syria are likely to make problems in the Middle East worse.
SIEGEL: You asked people: Who should decide this, the president or the Congress?
SIEGEL: And this week, it's the Congress.
DIMOCK: It is the Congress. And that's not necessarily unusual. A CNN-USA Today - asked a question like that in the buildup to the Iraq War, and a majority said Congress should have the final authority over a situation like this. That's about 2 to 1 now, a little more lopsided. Republicans now think Congress should decide. In 2002, of course, it was Democrats who wanted Congress to decide.
SIEGEL: Would you say that the Syria crisis is taking a toll on President Obama's approval ratings?
DIMOCK: I think it is, at this point. We've seen his approval tilt back into negative territory; 49 percent disapprove, 44 percent approve of his job overall. He hasn't been in negative territory for about a year and a half. And his approval on foreign policy has plummeted. Only 33 percent approve of how he's handling foreign policy. That's been a relative strength for him through much of his presidency.
SIEGEL: There's one very big number. I think you found 70 percent of Americans surveyed agree with the statement that there are no good options in Syria.
DIMOCK: That's right. And I think that's a testament to the feeling Americans have about a lot of foreign policy generally, these days; a sense not only of war fatigue - that we're sick and tired of being involved in these things - but a sense of inefficacy, a sense that the efforts we make often cause more harm than good. And that's a sentiment you're seeing come up in a lot of foreign engagements recently.
SIEGEL: Michael Dimock, thanks for talking with us once again.
DIMOCK: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Michael Dimock is director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. He's talking about a new survey that was conducted from last Wednesday through Sunday, and found a strong majority of Americans opposed to airstrikes against Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.