by Andrew Kohut, President, Pew Research Center
Special to the New York Times

Issues have hardly played a dominant role in the nominating races, especially on the Democratic side. Still, the public has a clear domestic agenda for the next president: Fix the economy, reduce health care costs, improve the environment, reform education, deal with rising energy costs and so on. This hearty appetite for an assertive domestic approach arises in no small part from the discontent that large majorities have with the Bush administration’s handling of nearly all of these issues.

This disapproval holds true with respect to foreign policy, too — just 30% approve of President Bush’s stewardship of it. But the public is far less clear as to what it wants with respect to foreign policy.

Opinion surveys show that American views about the world will not only challenge the presidential candidates of both parties in the general election, but will force the winner in November to deal with a citizenry that is downbeat about the world and fractured along partisan lines.

Disillusionment with the Iraq war has ushered in a rise in isolationist sentiment comparable to that of the mid-1970s following the Vietnam war. Pew surveys have found as many as four-in-ten Americans saying the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”

This is a significantly higher percentage of people than subscribed to this view at the beginning of the decade. A rise in isolationism has signaled a diminished public appetite for the assertive national security policy of the Bush years and, in general, a less internationalist outlook. For example, in the summer of 2006, polls found majorities of Americans saying the United States was not responsible for resolving the conflict between Israel and other countries in the Middle East during the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

American public opinion is also extraordinarily partisan. Consider, Iraq. It remains number one on the public’s foreign policy issue agenda, yet there is hardly a consensus as to what to do next. While a late February Pew poll1 found a continuing majority of respondents (54%) saying the war was a mistake, opinions were evenly divided about how and when to extract United States forces.

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1 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Obama Has the Lead, but Potential Problems Too,” February 28, 2008.