WASHINGTON — Public opposition to the exchange of five Taliban prisoners for captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has less to do with Bergdahl himself and more with how President Obama handled the transfer, according to a new USA TODAY/Pew Research Center poll.
The poll shows 43% of Americans say it was wrong for Obama to make the deal, compared with 34% who say it was the right thing to do.
Thirty percent of those surveyed have a strong opinion of Bergdahl, whose decision to leave his post in 2009 and subsequent capture by the Taliban is under investigation by the Army. Half of respondents say they were sympathetic, and half say they are angry with Bergdahl.
The 128 veterans included in the poll are much more harsh in their assessment of the 28-year-old sergeant. Only 6% of veterans who responded say they sympathized with him, while 33% say they were angry. By 68%-16%, veterans say Obama made the wrong decision.
"If he was a captured prisoner of war, we wouldn't be having this discussion," says Joe Davis, the director of public affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "He put his teammates in jeopardy, and you absolutely don't do that in a combat zone."
Veterans are worried about the precedent set by the transfer, Davis says. "We have a long history in this country of not negotiating with terrorists," he says. "And we just did."
White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that prisoner exchanges are "something that is part of winding down armed conflict for centuries."
Indeed, most Americans say they believe the United States has a responsibility to bring a captive American soldier home, regardless of the circumstances: 56% say Bergdahl was entitled to those efforts even though he left his post in 2009; 29% say he wasn't.
On one key point in the political controversy, the public backs Congress. By 2-1, Americans say the president should be required to inform Congress before such transfers.
A law passed by Congress last year requires the secretary of Defense to do exactly that, at least 30 days before transferring detainees out of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Obama signed that bill into law despite arguing that the notification provision was unconstitutional because it hindered his ability "to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers."
The poll showed that 30% agree the president should have that flexibility, and 64% say the president should be required to inform Congress first. There's a significant partisan split: A slight majority of Democrats give deference to the president, while Republicans overwhelmingly side with Congress.
That's "super-interesting" to Jon Rogowski, a professor at the University of Washington in St. Louis who studies public opinion on presidential power.
"I think the numbers here probably show what happens when these actions are politicized," he said "In general, the public does like strong presidents. They like presidents to have some flexibility and dexterity in addressing these high-stakes issues that are really sensitive."
The USA TODAY/Pew Research Center poll of 1,004 adults was conducted by Princeton Survey Research on June 5-8. It has a margin of sampling error of +/-4 percentage points overall and +/- 10 points for veterans.