Next Tuesday, President Obama will make the case for a military attack on Syria from the White House. Every president since Reagan has made an Oval Office pitch for military action — with varying results.
A poll released by Gallup on Friday suggests that the conflict in Syria is more unpopular than any other similar conflict since the airstrikes on Kosovo and the Balkans under President Clinton. The comparison isn't precise; Gallup took the numbers closest to the start of other conflicts and compared them to Syria today — almost certainly not the polling closest to the strikes.
Tuesday's address stems from the fact that Obama's hopes for congressional approval for any action lies primarily in persuading the American people that action is necessary. Below, we've collected four examples of similar speeches, making the case for military action, along with the polling before and after the conflict began, according to Gallup. This is not before and after the speech, mind you — but serves as an interesting proxy.
Speech date: April 14, 1986
Before poll: None
After poll: April 18, 1986
President Ronald Reagan's speech announced strikes on Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Gallup didn't have polling from shortly before the conflict began, but, as you can see, the strikes were broadly popular after the fact. Reagan himself had a job approval of about 62 percent, but support may also be in part due to the broad success of the vaguely-defined mission. One American fighter was shot down and its crew killed.
Speech date: January 17, 1991
Before poll: January 13, 1991
After poll: January 16, 1991
President George H. W. Bush's speech announcing strikes on Iraqi forces at the start of Desert Storm came after the conflict began. It also came after several months of American military presence in Saudi Arabia focused on Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait. Among the goals Bush mentions: knocking out Hussein's nuclear weapons program and destroying his chemical weapons facilities.
Speech date: March 24, 1999
Before poll: February 21, 1999
After poll: May 2, 1999
President Bill Clinton made his case for "diffus[ing] a powder keg at the heart of Europe that has exploded twice before in this century." The action was nearly as unpopular shortly before it began as action in Syria is today; after the strikes had begun, public opinion didn't change much.
Speech date: March 19, 2003
Before poll: February 26, 2003
After poll: March 20, 2003
President George W. Bush's announcement of the start of strikes came on the tail end of a big uptick in popular support. In February, prior to the first poll Gallup lists, Colin Powell made his presentation to the UN arguing for support from the body for an invasion. Gallup notes that, while that wasn't successful, Bush had successfully lobbied Congress for authority. The most popular actions on its list all had some sort of external approval: "[The] conflicts, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf, were authorized by Congress and/or the United Nations at the time of the polling."
Speech date: September 10, 2013
Before poll: September 4, 2013
After poll: None
How Obama's pitch for action fares in the aftermath of his speech next week remains to be determined. He's in something of an inverse position from Bush in 2003 — needing the public to sway the Congress, not relying on Congressional sign-off to move the public. As Gallup notes, his position is far more similar to Clinton's than any other recent president. He can only hope any action goes similarly smoothly.