Politics and Public Opinion

Public Opinion and Obama’s Failed Leadership on Afghanistan

The Washington Post reports alarming news today on Afghanistan:

Nearly two-thirds of Americans now say the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting, the highest proportion yet opposed to the conflict, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll …

The number of respondents to the Post-ABC News poll who say the war is not worth fighting has risen from 44 percent in late 2009 to 64 percent in the survey conducted last week.

Two-thirds of independents hold that position, according to the poll, and nearly 80 percent said Obama should withdraw a “substantial number” of troops from Afghanistan this summer. Barely more than a quarter of independents say the war is worth its costs, and for the first time a majority feel “strongly” that it is not.

This collapse in public support for the war effort in the nation where the 9/11 attacks were planned has taken place entirely on President Obama’s watch. Note the trend line in this graph:

When Obama took office, a majority still said the war in Afghanistan was worth it. He lost majority support in July 2009, then regained it briefly when he announced the surge in December 2009, and then lost it again with a precipitous decline throughout 2010.

What does this trend tell us? When the president uses his bully pulpit to explain why the war effort in Afghanistan is essential to national security (as he did in announcing the surge), the public responds and rallies to the cause. But when the president fails to speak out and explain the stakes in Afghanistan, support for the effort in Afghanistan falls.

The problem, as Danielle Pletka demonstrated in an excellent Washington Post op-ed earlier this year, is that (in contrast with his predecessor), Obama rarely makes the case for his own policies in Afghanistan:

Obama has been remarkably quiet about the war. [His] State of the Union address had only a passing reference to Afghanistan. Obama has given fewer than a dozen significant speeches focused on national security and only one major speech on Afghanistan. In contrast, George W. Bush gave more than 30 such speeches in his last two years in office.

Perhaps Obama’s silence is out of fear of alienating his liberal base (only 19 percent of Democratic respondents said the war is worth fighting). Perhaps it is or out of a simple lack of enthusiasm for anything having to do with national security. Whatever the reason, Obama is abdicating one of his most important responsibilities as a war-time president: to make the case for the war effort. Not only does he owe this to the troops who are risking their lives to carry out his strategy, he owes it to himself. The Post reports that, “The growing opposition pre­sents Obama with a difficult political challenge ahead of his 2012 reelection effort, especially in his pursuit of independent voters.” This is a problem of Obama’s own making. It cannot be fixed unless he begins to load his famous teleprompter with impassioned arguments for his own policies in Afghanistan. When Obama cares about something (eg, healthcare) he has no problem speaking out. If Obama does not care enough about the war in Afghanistan to try and convince Americans that it is worth the cost, why should they care?

Comments are closed.