Commentary Magazine


Obama Losing the Public on the War

The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Obama losing ground with the public on Afghanistan:

Support for the war in Afghanistan has hit a new low and President Obama’s approval rating for handling it has declined sharply since spring – results that portend trouble for the administration as the violence there grows. With Obama’s surge under way – and casualties rising – the number of Americans who say the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting has declined from 52 percent in December to 43 percent now. And his approval rating for handling it, 56 percent in April, is down to 45 percent.

Voters’ support for the war depends on whether they make the connection between the war and U.S. security:

Fifty-three percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has improved the long-term security of the United States – a majority, but hardly an overpowering one. Fifty percent say the same about the war in Iraq. And many fewer – 25 percent in both cases – say these wars have done “a great deal” to contribute to long-term security, a weak result given their costs in lives and lucre. It matters: Among people who say the Afghanistan war has improved U.S. security, 68 percent also say the war has been worth fighting. In Iraq, among those who see security gains, 72 percent say that war’s been worth it.

There are several explanations for the slippage in support. First, it may be a function of the public’s loss of confidence in Obama in general. At the beginning of his term, if a policy or viewpoint was associated with Obama, the voters were inclined to give it thumbs up. The reverse may be true now. And those who are supportive of the war — including a great number of conservatives — may approve of the handling of the war regardless of (or even in spite of) Obama.

Another possibility is that Obama’s war strategy has managed to please no one. Conservatives are losing confidence because Obama has insisted on an unworkable and counterproductive deadline for our troops to pull out. Liberals have long since given up on defending the “good war.” Trying to split the difference — between cutting and running, on the one hand, and an unqualified commitment to victory, on the other – has unnerved voters of both parties, not to mention our allies.

And yet a third possibility is that long wars are unpopular in democracies, and absent compelling and constant leadership, the public inevitably becomes restless and eventually hostile to the war. Obama — aside from the replacement of Gen. Stanley McChrystal — has rarely talked about the war of late and hasn’t been effective in explaining the connection between Afghanistan and our national security. There is an argument, of course, (if you accept the first explanation, namely that the public is losing confidence generally in Obama) that it wouldn’t help for him to do or say more on the subject. But, frankly, he hasn’t been trying all that hard. And if the public doesn’t listen to him, the administration needs to find someone who will be able to carry the message consistently and effectively. Maybe if we had a serious person as national security advisor or if Hillary weren’t bogged down with minutiae one of them could assume the national explainer role.

Those supportive of the war effort have tried their best to fend off isolationists on both the right and the left. But ultimately there is no replacement for firm presidential leadership. With the selection of Gen. David Petraeus, a move cheered by both Democrats and Republicans, and a solid Rose Garden speech, Obama seemed to be stepping up to the plate. But, alas, within days, the administration was reiterating its timeline for a troop withdrawal. Since McChrystal’s departure, Obama hasn’t followed up with an effort to educate and win over the public.

As skilled as Petraeus is and as magnificent as our troops are, they can’t win the war without an effective and enthusiastic commander in chief. Now is the time for Obama to get his act together. Otherwise we will suffer a devastating loss and he will bear the burden of that loss.