The political stakes of Obama's Afghanistan war speech

Obama delivers his Afghanistan war speech Tuesday. The danger for the president is that next fall, disillusioned voters on the left sit out the midterm elections, when the Democrats are already expected to lose seats in Congress.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP
US soldiers patrol near the town of Pul-i-alam, Logar province, Afghanistan, Nov. 18.

President Obama has his work cut out for him Tuesday evening when he addresses the nation on the Afghanistan war.

The president is expected to announce an escalation of the US presence there by some 30,000 troops. But he will emphasize that the goal is to stabilize the country and build up and train Afghanistan’s own military and police forces, not position the United States-led NATO forces for a long-term commitment.

“You will hear the president discuss clearly that this is not open-ended,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Monday.

Whether Mr. Obama can at least break even politically on the Afghanistan issue remains an open question. His supporters on the left, those who backed him during the campaign because of his stand against the war in Iraq, have already made clear they don’t like what’s coming. “Obama isn’t listening to voices of reason on Afghanistan,” reads one of several anti-escalation headlines at

The danger for Obama is that a disillusioned left sits on its hands next fall for the midterm elections, when the Democrats are already expected to lose seats in Congress. In three years, when Obama is expected to run for reelection, he could also face negative consequences if his base supporters are not as motivated to work for him as they were last year.

From the right, even if many are happy with Obama’s decision, they’re not exactly going to start voting Democratic.

A poll released last week by USA Today/Gallup shows that 57 percent of Democrats favor beginning a withdrawal from Afghanistan, while 72 percent of Republicans back an increase of troops.

Obama will announce his decision in a televised speech from the US Military Academy at West Point on Tuesday at 8 p.m., Eastern time. Some analysts don’t expect Obama’s highly choreographed rollout of the new Afghanistan policy to have much impact on public opinion.

“There’s almost no evidence that the bully pulpit works, even though he’s one of the best communicators ever,” says John Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion at Ohio State University in Columbus. “I would be very surprised if he moved opinion very much for any length of time.”

History shows that once the public has turned against a war, it’s very difficult to turn attitudes around. By the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, public opinion on the Iraq war remained negative even as the situation improved.

Other observers suggest that in escalating US involvement in Afghanistan, Obama is engaging in typical presidential behavior that will end up inoculating him politically.

“This is the classic problem that both Clinton and Bush faced: You govern as a moderate, often irritating the more extreme elements of your party,” says John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “Those people will be angry, but they will end up coming back to [Obama] because the alternative is less palatable.”

Christopher Gelpi, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C., argues that Obama can survive disappointing his antiwar base on Afghanistan. The key is to keep an eye on the big picture.

“What he’ll do is deliver his speech, then get back to healthcare,” Mr. Gelpi says. “If he can pass it by the end of the year, he’ll get a pass from Democrats on Afghanistan.”

See also:

Obama's Afghanistan war speech partly a bid for more foreign troops


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