Now that he is back from Asia, President Obama is nearing a decision on how many more troops he will send to Afghanistan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on hand there for President Hamid Karzai's inauguration last week, highlighted the difficulties ahead, noting that the "road ahead is fraught with challenges and imperfect choices."
Polls shouldn't guide war-making decisions--most voters aren't international relations or military experts--but presidents and Congress still need to be aware of public opinion. Recent surveys show that majorities trust Obama to do the right thing about troop levels, yet he needs to address their concerns about how things are going there and how he will turn them around, as evidenced by several new polls this week.
Americans give their presidents latitude in the conduct of foreign affairs when they trust them. Perhaps surprisingly, given Hillary Clinton and John McCain's attacks on his foreign policy credentials during the campaign and the Republicans' relentless pummeling of late, many of them trust Obama on the next steps. A new Quinnipiac University poll found that 53% of those questioned trust the president to make the right decisions about troop levels in Afghanistan. Fifty-fix percent in the new ABC News/Washington Post poll are confident he will come up with a successful strategy.
The president's marks on handling terrorism are among his best. Only a small number (22%) in the ABC/Post poll think his policies are making the U.S. less safe from terrorism. Twenty-seven percent said they were making the U.S. safer, while almost half, 49%, say they aren't making much difference.
But while most Americans generally are hopeful about Obama's plans and trust his handling of terrorism, the results of polling about his options for Afghanistan are complex and muddled.
The long--and what many in Washington see as dysfunctional--decision-making process has not yet created a public opinion problem for Obama, though it may be harming our troops on the ground. Gen. Stanley McChrystal warned in August that failure to gain the initiative could make defeating the insurgency impossible. Americans are slow judge on critical issues, especially when they involve putting American troops in harm's way.
At the same time, Americans are more critical than in the past about how Obama is handling Afghanistan. There are at least two possible explanations. First, the goal of eliminating the threat from terrorists in Afghanistan is strongly supported. Sixty-five percent nationally, including 81% of Republicans, 67% of independents and 52% of Democrats, believe in it. Americans want a strategy to support that goal, and they hope Obama can provide one.
Second, pessimism about the situation there is growing. In September, 35% told CBS News interviewers that things were going well there; that is now 23%. Stories about corruption in the Afghan government and a botched election underscore the perception. In the ABC/Post poll, barely a quarter (26%) expressed confidence that Afghan President Karzai--whose government was mired in corruption and mismanagement--would be a reliable partner. So Americans, unhappy with the present situation and eager for a carefully considered strategy to address a real threat, are hopeful President Obama will deliver one.
As for troop levels, most Americans aren't military strategists, and we shouldn't expect them to be. They want to get tough. They don't know precisely how many troops that will take, so when they are asked about levels, responses bounce around from one poll to the next depending on the information the pollsters had given. There is a consistent core of around 20% who oppose going to war in any situation, what James Q. Wilson and I have called the "peace party" in America, but beyond that, the numbers are squishy.
Though, as commander in chief, Obama has had responsibility for our efforts in Afghanistan for months, the decision about troop levels will make that reality even sharper in the public's mind. Whatever he does, it will be important for him to have Gen. McChrystal on board, given the fact that the military is much more popular than the president. In one poll from Quinnipiac University, 55% trusted Obama to make the right decisions about troop levels there vs. the 81% who trusted the U.S. military to do so.
McChrystal's support will assure Americans that Obama has made the right choice, but in the meantime, voters just want a coherent strategy and a commitment to execute that strategy fully and successfully. We know the broad outlines of public opinion. It is now up to Obama to deliver.
Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow who studies public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, writes a weekly column for Forbes.
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