White House

Obama 'timid' in response to plane crash, GOP says

Tensions rise between US & Russia
Tensions rise between US & Russia

Republicans this weekend roasted President Barack Obama over what they called his "timid" and ineffectual reaction to the Malaysia Airlines flight that was shot down over eastern Ukraine last week, killing all 298 aboard.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, said Obama has become the "king of indecision" on foreign policy from Syria to Gaza to Eastern Europe. He went on to rip Secretary of State John Kerry's comment that the U.S. has "never been more engaged in helping to lead in more places than we are now." Graham spoke a day before the president said Russian President Vladimir Putin had direct responsibility to compel separatists to cooperate with the investigation of the downing.

Read MoreObama presses Putin on MH17 downing probe

Graham said Kerry "gave the most ridiculous and delusional summary of American foreign policy I could imagine." Graham added. "It scares me that he believes the world is in such good shape. America is the glue that holds the free world together. Leading from behind is not working. The world is adrift."

Other Republicans also took out after Obama, using the roiling crises in Ukraine—where early evidence points to Russian-backed rebels as responsible for shooting down the airliner—as well as the violence in Gaza and elsewhere around the globe to paint the administration as woefully disengaged from the world.

The problem with this: The public appears to be mostly on the administration's side when it comes to getting more involved in conflicts well outside U.S. borders.

A local resident stands near flowers and mementos placed at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the settlement of Rozspyne in Donetsk.
Maxim Zmeyev | Reuters

The latest 2014 battleground poll from Politico shows that Americans, fatigued from over a decade of war, strongly oppose more direct engagement in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

When asked if the U.S. should do more to counter Putin and his aggressive tactics in Ukraine, only 17 percent said yes while 34 percent said the U.S. should be even less involved than it is now.

Read More Putin 'stalling' on MH17 response: Amb. McFaul

The poll was conducted before Flight MH17 was shot down, so the numbers could shift a bit following saturation news coverage of the horrific event. But they are not likely to move much long-term, meaning that despite all the saber rattling from hawkish Republicans, the measured approach favored by the administrationwhich includes pressing Europe to apply tougher sanctionsis actually much more in line with overall public opinion.

Over 75 percent of the public also agrees with Obama's plan to get all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016. Likely 2014 voters also mostly oppose any more involvement in civil wars raging across Iraq and Syria.

Read More China: Don't rush to blame Russia for MH17

Overall, likely voters favored Republicans on foreign policy by 39 percent to 32 percent. But the numbers show the public is generally more inclined to pull back from overseas entanglements and not engage in them more aggressively as the hawkish wing of the GOP, led by Graham and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would advocate.

McCain last week went so far as to call the Obama administration "cowardly" for not doing more to aid the Ukrainians.

Attacks like that clearly have an impact on the president's popularity rating, as 57 percent in the poll said they disapprove of Obama's while just 43 percent approve. These numbers persist despite an improving economy, rising stock market and what would appear to be a fairly close overlay between Obama's foreign policy approach and the public's wishes.

Why the disconnect? At least on foreign policy, the issue is to some degree optics and communication. It doesn't look good when the president keeps up a regular schedule, including fundraisers, after an event like the Ukraine atrocity. And while the public may be reluctant to engage militarily, Obama could certainly lose his cool demeanor and unleash some much more heated rhetoric (and even tougher economic sanctions) aimed at Putin. Fair or not, the American public likes a president who talks tough even if they don't want to back up that talk with U.S. troops.

Read More Global turmoil may punish complacency: El-Erian

The poll numbers also suggest that while the hawkish wing of the GOP still gets much of the media airtime, especially on the Sunday shows, public opinion is with the more skeptical (if not neo-isolationist) wing led by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. There is a reason Paul has much of the heat in the GOP while more establishment types who favor a more Cold War-era approach to foreign policy often leave the activist wing of the party cold.

The other big reality that the Politico poll brings home is that while events like those in Ukraine and Gaza are currently dominating the headlines, they will likely not make a major difference in the midterm elections in November.

Overall, 89 percent said foreign policy would be "important" in their vote. But when making an actual list of issues they care about (a more telling metric), just 11 percent cited foreign affairs, national defense or terrorism. By contrast, 31 percent of voters cited "jobs and the economy," making it by far the most important issue this fall.

Obama and Democrats also fare poorly on that score despite the recent uptick in job creation and forecasts for solid growth the rest of this year. On the so-called "generic ballot" question, likely voters favored the GOP by a narrow 39-37 percent margin, down from a 7-point GOP lead in May.

Read More MH17, Gaza: How foreign policy will impact the 2016 election

That suggests that improvements in the economy are at least slimming down the GOP's natural advantage this fall and making their quest to gain a large number of House seats and retake the Senate somewhat more difficult, though the landscape still favors significant Republican gains.

But what the poll also makes clear is that the GOP may not be able to expand its lead by calling on Obama to get the U.S. more involved in foreign conflicts that most voters want to avoid.

—By Ben White. White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.