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Charles Franklin Headshot

The Afghan Dilemma

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The end of the summer saw some rebounding of President Obama's domestic approval ratings, and his overall job approval.  But it is now the foreign front that poses the greatest potential to damage the president's approval ratings. Afghanistan looms large.

Domestically, things have turned in Obama's favor. After falling through much of the spring and summer, support for Obama's handling of health care reform has taken a noticeable upturn since mid-August. Approval of his handling of the economy is flat or slightly up, and his overall job rating has risen 3 points or so since it's low point at the end of August. Even his worst approval rating, on handling the deficit, has stopped declining, though it remains below 40%.

But the problem is now with foreign policy matters and most specifically with Afghanistan.  Through the spring, even as he increased troop levels in Afghanistan, Obama enjoyed an approval rating on that war of near 60%.  But those ratings have taken a sharp dive over the last four months, even as domestic issue approval rebounded. Since June, approval of his handling of Afghanistan has fallen some 17 points, from about 60% to about 43%.

During much of the summer conversation focused on the damage a falling health care approval was doing to Obama's overall job ratings. Now the attention should turn to the potential damage of  whatever decision he makes about how to wage the Afghan war. Increasing troop levels, and therefore casualties, will not be popular among progressives in his own party, and will surely not win back any Republican support. But refusing to increase commitments there is likely to result in little visible improvement while maintaining American targets, and therefore casualties. While the president may have succeeded in bringing back some support for his domestic agenda, that was an easier sell within his party than will be the case with Afghanistan. The driving mechanism with Afghanistan is going to be casualties and perceptions of progress or lack thereof plus a base of ideological opposition to the war among Democrats.

The declining approval on Afghanistan has also begun to be reflected in declines in approval of his handling of foreign policy in general. (Handling of Iraq and Iran have relatively few recent polls, so are omitted from the figure.) While foreign policy approval has been a strength, generally running higher than overall job approval, that may not be the case much longer.

If the military decisions are daunting either way, the political implications are at least as difficult. A Democrat committing more troops to a war now eight years old, with troops stressed from repeated deployments, is going to be a hard, perhaps impossible, sell to his partisans. But with Republican support now down in single digits, the president can look for support only from Democrats and some independents. Those groups are quite reticent to support an escalation.