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Using economic sanctions does not boost a president's approval rating, study finds

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


LAWRENCE — While President Donald Trump's administration has imposed sanctions against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela during his first year in office, political pundits have speculated on whether Trump, as part of his "America First" trade and foreign relations policy, would seek to use economic sanctions more broadly.

And would imposing such sanctions possibly boost his standings in the polls?

Not likely, according to a University of Kansas researcher who studies how economic sanctions affect presidential approval ratings. He examined the public reactions to all presidential sanctions implemented from 1978 under Jimmy Carter through 2005 under George W. Bush.

In his article recently published in the journal International Interactions, Clayton Webb, assistant professor of political science, found sanctions have a moderately negative effect on presidential approval, meaning economic sanctions on average are not popular but can be in certain cases.

"This means that at a baseline, the public tends not to reward a president for being belligerent using economic sanctions towards other countries," Webb said. "But there are situations where sanctions are popular."

Webb said if presidents expected to use international economic sanctions as a means to improving their own approval rating, there's little evidence to support that would work.

"That would be a very dangerous political strategy because most of the time, that's not the case," Webb said. "But presidents aren't supposed to impose sanctions based on whether or not the decision would improve their approval ratings."

The study resolves questions surrounding previous research on the topic, Webb said, because researchers often speculated in different ways on whether economic sanctions had an effect on a president's approval rating.

It could be economic sanctions don't seem to resonate as much with the public because in general the public pays less attention to international affairs compared with domestic issues, Webb said.

However, the extent they do resonate with people seems to fall more under potential negative economic consequences people might experience at home as a potential fallout. It's possible some pockets of supporters could approve of sanctions, Webb said, but generally speaking, they are not popular. For example, if a sanction influences trade ties with a country, that can hurt some businesses, Webb said.

"Do presidents get rewarded for belligerent behavior?" Webb said. "Because international sanctions can reduce economic activity, those types of decisions can have detrimental consequences."

The findings would likely be viewed positively in that regard.

"It's not costless for a president to approve sanctions, but it's not so politically steep that it would constrain their behavior, especially if they concluded an economic sanction was in the national interest," Webb said. "It means a well-meaning president would not be rewarded for acting belligerently on the economy, and that should prevent presidents from wanting to engage in otherwise risky behavior for gain." 

Photo: U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on June 6, 2012, speaks to the Friends of Syria People International Working Group on Sanctions. A University of Kansas researcher has found that economic sanctions against foreign countries don't typically result in a bump in approval ratings, but he also found that most presidents since 1978 appear to have used sanctions prudently and not for political gain. (U.S. Government Work/U.S. Department of the Treasury via Flickr)