12/02/2009 01:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama's Speech and Afghanistan Approval

Will President Obama's speech last night, announcing that he will send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan now and start withdrawing American forces by July 201, turn public opinion in his favor? We will know better in a week or two, after Americans absorb the news and the usual suspects conduct another round of polls, but the short term prospects look bleak.

The Washington Post's Dan Balz shares the assessment of Duke political scientist Peter Feaver, who analyzed public opinion on the Iraq War for the Bush White House:

[Feaver] said that as Obama begins his effort to sell the new strategy, he is in a far stronger position politically than Bush was when he announced the surge policy in January 2007. But Feaver said mixed signals during the decision-making process forced Obama "to do a sharp pivot back" toward escalation, complicating his task of rallying public opinion.

NBC's Chuck Todd also points out this morning that "most Commanders-in-Chief get at least a temporary boost in the polls after delivering a major primetime address on matters of war and peace." I'm not sure if that is true. As John Sides argued in September, presidential addresses rarely move their approval ratings, and Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for the Bush campaign in 2004, reminds us today that Bush "gave speech after speech when Iraq was going south, and they had no lasting effect." But what Todd is probably thinking about are speeches like the one Bush gave immediately after September 11, 2001, when he rallied the nation behind the "war on terror," or speeches made by both Bushes during the run-ups toward their respective Iraq Wars. The 9/11 attacks and the impending Iraq wars served to increase their popularity.

The difference in those cases is that the political leadership of both parties rallied in support of both presidents. Today, as Todd explains, "no one is happy." Democrats are expressing opposition to the troop increase, Republicans are speaking out against Obama's deadline for withdrawal.

More important, the public has been shifting sharply against the Afghan War and toward disapproval of Obama's handling of it. Surveys conducted in November show approval of Obama's handling of the War declining below 40%, significantly lower than his overall approval rating and lower, as Gallup reports, than for any other issue they tested. Gallup shows a 21 percentage point decline in Obama's Afghanistan approval since July. The recent CBS News survey shows Obama's approval on this issue down six points since September and down twenty points since April (via Sussman).


One reason why Obama's Afghanistan numbers are lower is that many Democrats do not approve. His Afghanistan approval rating among Democrats has fallen to just 57% on the CBS News survey and 54% on the USA Today/Gallup poll. Meanwhile, the CBS News survey tells us that as of mid November, only 17% of Democrats wanted to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 21% want to keep the number as it is now and 48% want to decrease the number of troops. A recent Gallup poll yielded very similar results. So his approval rating among Democrats on this issue could fall further.

What all these results tell us is that the most likely impact of last night's speech will be downward pressure on Obama's overall job approval rating if only because of a phenomenon political scientists call "priming." All the stories on the Afghanistan speech will prime the importance of an issue that is an Obama weakness, so for the next few days, expect Obama's overall approval rating to fall slightly, even if the speech helps bump his Afghanistan approval numbers up a few points.

But say what you will about this president and his Afghanistan policy, even Obama understands that the policies he announced last night are likely to create a negative response. "I am painfully clear that this is politically unpopular," Obama reportedly told group of political columnists yesterday. "Not only is this not popular, but it's least popular in my own party. But that's not how I make decisions." He continued (via Ambinder): "If I were basing my decisions on polls, then the banking system might have collapsed and you probably wouldn't have GM or Chrysler, and it's not clear that the economy would be growing again."

For further reading: CBS pollster Sarah Dutton compares American's attitudes on Afghanistan in 2009 with their views on Iraq in 2007. ABC News pollster Gary Langer reviews the risks for Obama in Afghanistan, the prices paid by previous wartime presidents and opinions on the case that Obama is making on the threat from terrorism. Gallup's Frank Newport summarizes public opinion on the Afghanistan War.