Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee, on September 16, 2014.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee, on September 16, 2014. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Hagel Approval Rating Just 26 Percent Among National Security Workers, Troops

Defense Secretary Hagel’s logs a rock-bottom approval rating among his own workers as Obama reportedly considers cabinet shakeup. By Gordon Lubold

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has just a 26 percent approval rating among individuals currently serving within the national security community, according to findings from a new survey commissioned by Defense One.

The findings come as scrutiny on the Obama administration’s handling of the war in Iraq and Syria grows. At the same time, a variety of media reports hint that President Barack Obama, himself trailing in the polls after a poor showing for the Democrats in Tuesday’s election, is considering a shake-up of his national security staff. That could include Hagel.

The “Defense One National Security Survey” released Friday found few individuals inside the national security government think highly of the Obama administration’s national security strategy. The survey found that only 4 percent of respondents “strongly agree” and 16 percent “agree” that the White House has “a clear national security strategy.” Conversely, 73 percent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with that statement.

The survey also found that 50 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed the U.S. relies too heavily on its military to achieve its foreign policy goals, but 77 percent of respondents think the world is “more dangerous” than it was in 2008, when Obama was elected.     

But as the chief of the massive Defense Department, it is Hagel’s poor showing among many of his own employees that is most striking. Hagel has a 35 percent disapproval rating among the respondents, most of which are federal workers and troops who serve under his leadership. Perhaps more concerning for a Defense Secretary grappling with myriad world crises but whose public profile has been limited, 39 percent of those respondents said they had “no opinion” of whether Hagel was doing a good job or not.

The survey by Government Business Council and Defense One, divisions of Government Executive Media Group, received responses from 427 individuals currently serving within the national security community, including 77 percent Defense Department civilians and 7 percent uniformed military personnel. Sixteen percent reported themselves as “non-DoD civilian.” The survey has a margin of error of 4.74 percent.

The survey also found, unsurprisingly, that 82 percent of individuals think sequestration – the automatic spending cuts mandated by Congress – agree “significantly impairs” the military’s ability to respond to global national security threats. Sixty-four percent of respondents believe shrinking the size of the U.S. Army to less than 450,000 soldiers also impairs the military’s ability to respond to threats.

Hagel, a former Army sergeant who served in the Vietnam War, arrived in the Pentagon in February 2013 after a controversial confirmation process he nearly did not survive. Immediately, he inherited a Pentagon that was undergoing deep spending cuts, violence in the Middle East and a war in Afghanistan. A sexual assault crisis, women in combat and other social issues have also dominated his tenure. But while Hagel, a former Republican senator, was able to erase some of the ill-will surrounding his confirmation process through quiet stewardship and his low-key, self-effacing style, he has struggled to define an agenda. His frequent trips to Asia to underscore that the so-called pivot to Asia is real have only made matters worse: he often finds himself in that region as crises in the Middle East, Europe and Africa blow up elsewhere.

Under fire for a poor or incomplete war strategy, Obama may be thinking about making some changes. As recently as Friday, influential Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote that as Obama considers his options, Hagel could find himself out of a job before the end of Obama’s second term. Ignatius hinted that Michele Flournoy, once the Pentagon’s top policy chief and now a perennial short-lister for the secretary’s job, could replace Hagel.

"The secretary is focused on his job making sure men and women in uniform and their families have all the support for the mission they've been assigned," Kirby said to Defense One. "That's his focus." Kirby said in a briefing Friday that Hagel was committed to remaining in the job.

Hagel has never enjoyed high favorability ratings. In April, Hagel had an approval rating of only 36 percent, versus a 45 percent disapproval rating according to a poll conducted by Defense News.  That poll showed that Hagel received higher marks from Democrats – about 82 percent – but among Republicans, his disapproval rating was 62 percent. The military gave Hagel a 44 percent approval rating, while 36 percent said they disapprove, according to that poll. Pentagon civilians were more split at 38 percent.

In February 2013, at the height of the debate as to whether the Senate would confirm him or not, a Pew Research Center survey indicated that just 22 percent of adults viewed him favorably, while 28 percent viewed him unfavorably. That poll showed that 50 percent had no opinion, not surprising for an individual who at the time didn’t have widespread name recognition and had not yet been sworn in as defense secretary.