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December 1st, 2009
11:38 PM ET

Can Obama rally the country on Afghanistan?

U.S. troops search for militants in the mountainous Taliban stronghold in Paktika Province in Afghanistan.

U.S. troops search for militants in the mountainous Taliban stronghold in Paktika Province in Afghanistan.

David Gergen | BIO
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Political Analyst

In his Afghanistan speech tonight, Barack Obama will face one of the toughest tests of any president in modern times.

Presidents usually seek public support for sending U.S. combat troops into action just after another country has attacked us or threatened our national interest – think FDR after Pearl Harbor, Harry Truman after the invasion of South Korea, John Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis, George H.W. Bush embarking on the Persian Gulf war, George W. Bush after 9/11 and even his decision to invade Iraq. In each case, vital interests seemed at stake, presidents acted decisively and Americans rallied ’round the flag.

But in this case, Obama is asking the public to support an escalation in a war that has already gone on so long that Americans have lost sight of why it is important and are intensely divided over whether we should spend more blood and treasure. The cold reality is that the U.S. government has done a horrible job persuading the American people that the Afghan war matters.

While the President deserves credit for engaging in serious deliberations before acting, his pause for reflection has also gone on so long – 94 days from the day of the McChrystal request to the day of his public response – that he has also sent a clear signal of inner doubts and uncertainty about next steps.

The cost has been high for the President. Four months ago, some 56 percent told Gallup/USA Today that they approved of the way he was handling Afghanistan. By last week, the numbers had reversed: only 35 percent said they still approved while 55 percent disapproved. Americans have always preferred a commander in chief to sound a clear trumpet.

Moreover, as commentator Fred Barnes pointed out a few days ago, Obama’s oratorical magic was much more effective when he was a candidate offering hope than a president urging new policies. His speeches since January have generally inspired more confidence in him than in his prescriptions. Most recently, his health care address to Congress did shore up support for legislation within his own party but after a temporary bump in polls, public opinion continued to slide in the wrong direction.

So, the odds are stacked heavily against him Tuesday night in rallying the country behind the war he envisions. The left is apt to say that whatever he does is too much while the right will say that it is too little. He will have to convince people that what he is doing is just right – in effect, he needs a Goldilocks speech.

The Gallup/USA Today poll of last week suggested how tough that may be. Some 39 percent said bring the troops home; some 37 percent said send 40,000 additional troops; only 10 percent supported a middling option of sending less than 40,000 – the option that Obama will reportedly embrace.

Does it matter whether he can unite a strong majority behind him? Many military experts think it matters a lot. A central lesson of the Vietnam War is that a president must commit the country before he commits the troops. If support is fragile, it can easily melt away over time and nervous politicians may then pull the plug on soldiers who have risked life and limb.

The truth is that it is not President Obama who has the most at stake here Tuesday night – it is our U.S. troops who will live or die in Afghanistan.

soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. Jan from Wood Dale IL

    I would like to hear how Obama plans to pay for this escalation of troops in Afghanistan. I would like to hear Obama explain how he justifies working with the corrupt Afghanistan government. Within the last eight years, has the Afghan national army and police shown the ability to defend any one province without US or NATO assistance? Why does Obama expect that to change within a shorter period of time?

    During this past year, Obama has started a variety of things, but has accomplished very little. I believe Afghanistan will soon be added to that list.

    December 1, 2009 at 7:02 pm |
  2. sandra

    I think it doesn't matter if we support him or not. He will do what he wants to do anyways. I really don't even know why he is asking. But quick, ask me how I think we are going to pay for war.

    The Death Tax!

    December 1, 2009 at 6:57 pm |
  3. Gary in AZ

    I voted for Obama based on the promises he made to end the U.S. involvement in the war(s) and bring some sanity to our country.
    Alas, all he has done so far is to sit on the fence of political rhetoric designed to appease both sides with middle of the road ideology.
    It is obviously not working.
    The Mess Obama inherited from Bush and Cheny has only been made worse by his inability to make the tough decisions.
    Like all politicians his job is not to solve problems, but to get re-elected.
    Not with my vote!

    December 1, 2009 at 6:43 pm |
  4. Larry

    POTUS Obama will never accept that this war is now his; it will always carry the rider that it is G.W. Bush's war.

    December 1, 2009 at 6:22 pm |
  5. Bill, Bloominton IL

    This speech will not change my mind. I voted for him because he was ending the wars and now he is going to escalate one of the wars. No blood for oil and this administration is just as bad as the last one.

    December 1, 2009 at 5:39 pm |
  6. TVC

    We don't need to find reasons to hate him. We aleady have more than we need!

    December 1, 2009 at 5:37 pm |
  7. KzooTom

    Three years.... doesn't anyone think that the time frame to withdraw troops at that time is political? I mean, right during a re-election campaign??

    December 1, 2009 at 5:23 pm |
  8. Roger

    Obama will not change any minds tonight. It's just another political move to try and appease both sides and a photo op. He will fail for both sides. This speech should come from the WH, not West Point.
    It's really just another shot at blaming Bush. He fails to recognize that radical Muslims have been at war with the western mindset since about 1978. Remember the Lockerbie plane bomb, the USS Cole, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, etc., etc? New polls show that the world radicals still hate us despite Obama being in the WH. We now just look weak to the world. Obama has done nothing to make the world love us, in fact some mid east hatred of America is higher since Obama entered the WH!

    December 1, 2009 at 5:04 pm |
  9. Dan, Idaho Falls

    The Iran Pincers – Iraq to the west, Afghanistan to the east. The flurry of air base building to teach Iran a nuclear lesson its what this mess has always been about. The media is either complicit or too dull to discern the truth.

    December 1, 2009 at 4:44 pm |
  10. steve- virginia beach, va

    Obama has already proven that he can rally drowing folks around an anchor and that many or most will thank him as they sink to the bottom. Recent polls suggest that this is still true for about 45% of the country so I suspect his plan for Afghanastan will be a split decision.

    December 1, 2009 at 4:29 pm |
  11. ANGEL

    I doubt it very much.
    He hasn't been able to sell anything so far.
    Nothing has changed for the good of America since Jan. 2009, on the contrary his policies of change have brought down our country even more.

    December 1, 2009 at 4:21 pm |
  12. Paul

    Welcome to the "30-year war" and re-instatement of general draft soon. The approximately 250,000 U.S. troops in the geographical region spanning Iraq and Afghanistan will have less to do with the few hundred terrorists left in AfPak and more with the long-term strategy to gain a foothold in the region to manage the Pakistan and Iran nuclear issues. Since the volatility of the region spanning the Middle East and the Asia sub-continent is virtually permanent, so will be our presence. As General "Ike" warned us more than 50 years ago, this approach to solving our security issues is going to lead to tragic long-term results. If we want to have a strategic presence in the region, why not base our troops in friendly India like we do in Germany, etc.

    December 1, 2009 at 4:10 pm |
  13. rich

    I'm afraid that the days of the "Obama mystique" are gone. I was an avid supporter of the President when he was candidate Obama and I could not think of anyone better in our generation who could fit the bill as President. But I'm sorry to say the President has been a huge disappointment. The economy is still not fixed, unemployment at its highest, the federal deficit is astronomical, and the perception I have of the President is that he doesn't like the job. This gives the Republicans all the chances in the world to regain the House and Senate in 2010 and the White House in 2012. It's there for the taking. GOD HELP US ALL!

    December 1, 2009 at 4:06 pm |
  14. Isabel Siaba (Brazil)

    I have a simplistic view, which I don't see how sending more troops will be part of an exit strategy.

    Interesting sentence I read today: "Afghans have got to win the war in Afghanistan". he allies may even help, but nobody can do it for them!

    December 1, 2009 at 3:43 pm |
  15. Kim

    Go McChrystal ! Happy Holidays !

    December 1, 2009 at 3:17 pm |
  16. Lorina Delfiero

    Kindly tell the President that there is bigger war in his backyard. The banks vs. homeowners. He needs to step in now. We the homeowners have no money to fight what the lenders are doing. The bank will put the homeowners on forbearance, modification or repayment plan or ask the homeowners to pay the arrears but the bank will still sell the homes. My house was illegally sold and the judge gave it back to me and until now they can not put the deed on my name. The only way the people are doing now is bankruptcy. The president gave the banks a lot of money to be meaner to homeowners. The banks are greedy and no mercy to people who loses their houses. He has to pay attention on the banks wrong doings to the homeowners.

    December 1, 2009 at 2:58 pm |
  17. Linda B., Ga.

    Hey Pres. Bush is the one who put us there. He left Pres. Obama a MESS to clean up, both in our country and around the world.

    We need to go into Afghanistan with full force, let those flee the mountain regions that want to and BLOW IT TO PIECES. Then Disney Corp. can go in and make an amusement park out of that place.

    These people no more want us over there, then the Man in the Moon, they have been fighting each other, for centuries, to gain control of that land. BUT they sure enjoy the funding that we give to them....

    December 1, 2009 at 2:46 pm |
  18. Caleb, Texas

    Has anyone seen the movie "The Hunting Party"? I believe this is the same circumstances in Afghanistan surrounding Osama Bin Ladin. I back the military 150% and Obama, as should every American Because they fight for YOU to sit here and talk on your computer.

    December 1, 2009 at 2:40 pm |
  19. Jon, Texas

    you cannot solve problems with violence. only prolong the pain. it is sad that we as a species still fail to see this. all the rhetoric and political games do not cover up the fact that we are still killing people.

    December 1, 2009 at 2:38 pm |
  20. Melissa

    He will never be able to rally the Republicans or their sympathizers because they are just looking for reasons to hate him and are so used to being suspicious and hateful that its a natural state of being for them.

    Everyone else... maybe.

    December 1, 2009 at 2:38 pm |
  21. Chris

    The wars our President inherited are unwinnable. Adding more troops and shifting the strategy in Afghanistan to more emphasis on soft power, and the 'enclave' theory might reduce casualties, but it didnt work for the Soviets and it wont work for us. At this point, he could have said we have accomplished our objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and delivered a rousing victory speach tonight, lauding our troops and our glorious victories!! It would yield the same outcome as it will after another 5 years, $2trillion, and another couple thousand dead.

    December 1, 2009 at 2:28 pm |
  22. Lisa in CA

    He need not make a lengthy speech. He needs to remind us that we whole-heartedly supported invading a sovereign nation and toppling its government to defend us against future terrorist attacks. He simply needs to remind us that the War on Terror has not ended but continues to rage on.

    He needs to remind us that OBL – the man responsible for 9/11 – is still at large and the goal (though we did take a 7 year detour) is to apprehend him and bring him to face justice.

    He needs to remind us that you don't mess with America and think there will not be consequences to suffer.

    December 1, 2009 at 2:25 pm |
  23. Conserve' for USA

    Finally, does this mean this is his war now?

    December 1, 2009 at 2:16 pm |
  24. Gary, Maryland

    Shouldn't President Obama, given his sending more troops to Afghanistan and into harm's way, now decline the Nobel Peace Prize? If he proves deserving later, they can award it at a future time.

    December 1, 2009 at 2:06 pm |
  25. Andrew

    On the one hand, he inherited the war and his electoral political rhetoric dismayed me. Now, he's turning back full circle and will do the same thing Johnson did, expand the war. I believe he is surrounded by inept political cronies, most of whom never saw a day in uniform. I spent 26 years in Marine Corps uniform. You want to end the war? Forget about being nice. Just do it and get it over with in a Semper Fi moment. The rest of the world will be shocked and then grateful.

    December 1, 2009 at 1:15 pm |
  26. rrock

    As has happened in the past, I expect that there will be a significant rise in the approval for the war in Afghanistan after Obama does his rhetorical magic. It is an indictment of the American public that they can be so easily swayed by a nice speech. The good news is he is proposing some sort of time limit and benchmarks on the conflict unlike that last president.

    December 1, 2009 at 1:04 pm |
  27. Deborah Myers

    No he cannot rally the country. Dear President Obama: Agreeing with Michael Moore – Do you really want to be the new "war president"? If you go to West Point Tues & announce you are increasing, rather than withdrawing, troops in Afghanistan, you are the new war president. Pure & simple. And with that you will do the worst possible thing you could do – destroy the hopes & dreams the millions have placed in you. 30 Billion dollars for nothing & another broken promise. You promised to send 2 brigades back in February which you issued and order to do on February 9th, 2009 – not 30,000 troop surge! As the US struggles, that money could fund all the education cuts (read NEW YORK STATE ) – unemployment and could help endless families stay in their homes they are losing as we speak. We are writing our elected politicians today – who is running this ship?

    December 1, 2009 at 12:55 pm |
  28. God help us all...S Callahan

    I think he CAN rally the Nation but he has to make clear the REASONS we are involved there...the spirit of America is we have always reached out and helped those oppressed. In essence you are offering a gift to the future of that country, though they don't see that now when the package is open they will. God is with us, we have NOTHING to fear.

    December 1, 2009 at 12:29 pm |
  29. Joanne P.

    More troops or any amount of troops at all is a mistake.

    We need out. Let the drones take care of Iran.

    December 1, 2009 at 12:24 pm |
  30. Alice, AR

    I think the American people are sick to death of Gallup Polls. It seems that a different one comes out every day and they are in conflict with each other. President Bush started this war and President Obama is left to figure out a way to accomplish our goals and get the heck out. This is not an easy task!! This is why war should be as a last resort. President Bush rushed us into this war and did not take the time to calm down and make a rash decision. President Obama is willing to take the time to identify our goals and make the right decision. 9/11 was a great loss, but we have lost double that number with these wars.

    December 1, 2009 at 11:58 am |
  31. Cindy

    I doubt very seriously that Obama can change anyones minds on the Afghanistan war tonight. This thing has been going on for so long and people are now either dead set against it or staunchly for it and nothing will make either change their views!

    He's going to pee off both sides tonight one side by adding more troops and the other will say he isn't doing enough. He is in a no win situation in my mind.

    Cindy..Ga.

    December 1, 2009 at 11:58 am |
  32. Enough

    He rallied the country to elect him, even though he is way under qualified. His magic words will woo some, while the rest of America has realized it was a huge mistake electing him.

    December 1, 2009 at 11:57 am |
  33. Tim Gibson

    True, it is not Obama who has the most at stake on Tue. night and I personally feel that his campaign style speech to the underlings will not change minds or opinions on Afghanistan and the divide will remain fogged in his inaction and his failed attempts are economic recovery beyond the big boys on the monopoly board game.

    And we have yet to see if the party crashers have a get out of jail free card or not.

    December 1, 2009 at 11:57 am |
  34. Adam

    With this new investment of American Forces in Afghanistan, we will be able to capture Osama , lets not forget, the mastermind behind the forces in which brought down the Twin Towers, and brought the American people united together to defeat the forces responsible?

    December 1, 2009 at 11:44 am |