WASHINGTON -- Recent skepticism from several potential Republican presidential candidates over the state of affairs in Afghanistan has raised what is, for some progressives, an uncomfortable and alarming question: whether President Barack Obama could be the only one on the 2012 presidential ballot still supporting the war.
That began to seem more distinctly possible this past week, after Mississippi Gov. and likely GOP presidential hopeful Haley Barbour told a crowd in Iowa that he questioned the efficacy of a large U.S. military presence being camped in Afghanistan. Last month, another possible Republican contender, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, told a group of reporters that the Afghan government was not only disturbingly corrupt, but that the country itself looked “like the surface of the moon.”
Two GOP pols do not a trend make, especially with Huckabee appearing to fade from the race at this early stage. But the prominence of Barbour and Huckabee within their own party, combined with the growing unpopularity of the war in public opinion polls, has Democrats fretting that on 2012's likely predominant foreign policy issue, Obama will be outflanked and isolated.
“I think it is a real danger for them,” said one leading Democratic consultant, who requested anonymity because he frequently works with the Obama White House. “I think they are aware of it. They intend to reduce troops, but it has to be visible and real. The country has decided it is time to go.”
Obama and his advisers are aware of the political difficulties the issue poses for them. While several recent high-profile speeches from administration and Pentagon officials have left the impression that the president is flexible about a July start date for withdrawal from Afghanistan, top aides continue to insist that Obama won't deviate from the plan.
“[W]e understand the environment,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said during a press briefing Wednesday. “We understand how long this war has gone on. We understand, as the president said, that this war was neglected for a number of years in the middle of the last decade ... This was all part of the president’s review that led him to the policy decision he made."
But for many, that policy decision simply isn’t good enough. Under the current plan, U.S. troops won't hand off control of security operations to Afghan forces until the end of 2014, and in the interim, Obama's support is bleeding in the polls among the growing swath of Americans, including Republicans, wary of continued foreign entanglements.
“Afghanistan is devastating Obama on the level of inspiration and excitement. The war drips on, the millions and billions go out the door, and people become increasingly unhappy,” said Robert Greenwald, a progressive filmmaker who has been at the forefront of the effort to get the White House and Congress to revise its Afghan policy. “Obama can’t blame this on Bush. The Republicans moving to disown this are right and clever. People do not wake up in the morning wanting war in Afghanistan or thinking we are safer."
Such public perceptions have important political implications, but Republicans are hardly united behind withdrawal. For every Barbour offering concerns, there is a Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) there to demand fidelity to the mission and deference to generals pushing for further support. And while some Democratic voters have been demoralized by the president’s decisions on Afghanistan, that doesn't mean broad swaths of them will bolt to the GOP.
“I think there are people in the Republican Party who will resist this, there will be divisions within their ranks. John McCain won’t go down this road,” longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said. “In the meantime, the war is unpopular. But is it top of the mind for people? No. Does one wish it had been done a completely different way early on? Sure. But I just don’t see it becoming a big problem [for Obama]. Nor do I see it becoming a general election issue.”
As Shrum noted, Afghanistan remains low among defining electoral concerns for most voters. The principal issue remains the struggling economy, and until Afghanistan registers more broadly, Obama can likely stand to absorb a few dings on the war.
The pressure being applied from the Democratic base hasn’t gone unnoticed, either, but given the absence of a preferable and viable replacement for Obama, the party's donor class seems willing to continue giving him a pass.
“While I’m hearing Democrats being increasingly upset with this sinkhole called Afghanistan, the larger motivation, still, is that Obama is infinitely superior to any plausible Republican for president,” one prominent Democratic donor said. “So people are still muting their dissatisfaction. I don’t see that changing.”
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