NBC/WSJ poll: 47% feel less safe than before the 9/11 attacks

Barack Obama will give the most important speech on foreign policy in his second term later tonight, but polls show that the American public has lost confidence in his ability to lead — or keep them safe. A new poll from NBC and the Wall Street Journal shows a near-majority of Americans now feel less safe than since before the original 9/11 attacks, at 47%.  That went up from 28% a year ago, and is the highest level since polling started on this question in 2002:

The nation is on edge in the wake of brutal beheadings of journalists by Islamic extremists — with more Americans saying the United States is less safe now than at any point since 9/11, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll shows.

The exclusive poll reveals that 47% of Americans believe the country is less safe now than before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That’s a significant increase from even a year after the twin towers fell when in September 2002 just 20% of the country said the nation was less safe. The level of fear across America also is up substantially from last year when 28% felt the same way.

In fact, just 26% of Americans now feel the nation is safer than before 9/11.

The numbers are a backdrop for the primetime speech President Obama will deliver on Wednesday night outlining his plan to combat the terrorist group ISIS, which has taken over parts of Iraq and Syria, beheaded two American journalists, distributed images of the killings in via gruesome videos, and has launched a social media campaign to extend its reach.

Those numbers aren’t even the most impactful on tonight’s speech. These numbers are why the speech is necessary, but the other findings raise questions about the ability of Obama to sell his pitch tonight at all. His overall job approval remains stuck at last month’s 40/54, an all-time low for the President in this series, but his numbers on foreign policy have cratered. This poll’s 32/62 is the lowest ever for Obama, worse than last month’s 36/60 and a far cry from the 52/40 Obama got in December 2012. His approval on foreign policy turned underwater after the “red line” retreat a year ago and have never recovered.

That was a crisis in credibility, but it pales in comparison to the credibility meltdown Obama has had in 2014. The unease Americans have in their safety has less to do with explicit threats to the homeland, and more to do with the sense that the White House has no grip on reality when it comes to defense and counter-terrorism policies. As I write at The Week today, restoring that credibility will be Obama’s first task tonight:

Obama has to formulate a strategy that catches up with reality. The American electorate may have tired of war, but new polling shows they they are even more anxious about the rise of a terrorist threat with global capabilities. The timing of the speech, a day before the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, make this an even riskier political moment for a president who had all but discounted emerging threats this year.

But that also puts the cart before the horse, as Obama would say. In order for the American public to accept any strategy laid out by the president, he has to show that he can engage with reality.Peter Baker at The New York Times gives us some context on that score, with a laundry list of Obama’s previous assurances on national security. “Time and time again,” Baker writes, “he has expressed assessments of the world that in the harsh glare of hindsight look out of kilter with the changed reality he now confronts.”

That will be the first mission for Obama in his highly anticipated remarks today. He has to dispense with what The Washington Post calls his “fantasy” world, and convince the American people that he’s up to the job of being commander-in-chief for the next two years. Otherwise, even a strategy co-written by George S. Patton and Carl von Clausewitz will do Obama little good, as he will have few remaining followers to give him the support needed to carry it out.

This poll shows the harsh political landscape that Obama himself has created with his dilettante summer and fantasy projections about the threats arising in the Middle East. He’s got one chance to convince Americans that he’s woken up — and he’ll have to use it to convince us that we need to bomb the people now who were fighting the people Obama wanted to bomb a year ago.