On December 2, the day after the President gave his address to the nation outlining his decision to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan by 30,000 and outlining a rough timetable for the beginning of American troop withdrawal, Gallup polls showed that only 48% of Americans believed that the allied forces were “likely” or “certain” to achieve our goals in Afghanistan. (45% claimed that we were “not likely” or “certain not” to achieve those goals.) [http://www.gallup.com/poll/124565/Americans-Split-Whether-Goals-Afghanistan-Met.aspx] While a sister poll found that a majority of Americans support the new strategy, the margin is still remarkably slim: 51% in favor and 40% in opposition.
On some issues dealt with by the federal government, numbers like these are acceptable, workable and almost expected. When dealing with war policy, however, the administration will need to be more careful. The stakes are much higher when citizens are thinking of their friends, siblings, spouses, or children in the line of fire. The fact that the Afghan strategy’s “approval rating”, if you will, was under 50% the day after an optimistic, patriotic, nationally televised speech to a live audience of West Point cadets given by the commander-in-chief is something the President’s advisors need to be paying attention to. American history has shown that in similar times, especially during a protracted war, reassuring words from the President have buoyed many citizens’ hopes and increased their faith in the forces and the President himself. This is ideally enhanced when he is careful to include concrete facts (like a date to initiate withdrawal) to convince citizens that he is committed to his claim. Though there was an increase of approval for the Afghan strategy following the speech, it was certainly not as significant as many would have hoped for.
The President and his advisors will need to be increasingly aware of the state of public opinion as they proceed with the conflict. If support begins to wane, new and unwanted troubles may appear. These may include the slow dissemination of support, both emotional and physical, of our allies; if it becomes clear that the American people are ready to be through with the war, it may become difficult to convince foreign populations to remain dedicated. Similarly, such negative tidings will put great pressure on the President when it comes time to make decisions regarding the manner and speed of the withdrawal of troops. To avoid these, the current administration will need to take additionally careful stock of how each decision, announcement or request will appeal or deter the public from supporting the venture. We may find it will make or break the war (and quite possibly the Obama Presidency).
“When all is said and done, and statesmen discuss the future of the world, the fact remains that people fight these wars.” -Eleanor Roosevelt