David Gergen | BIO
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.
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