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Obama leads a surge — and the country


In September I noted that while support for the war in Afghanistan was flagging, President Barack Obama still had significant ambit for action with the American public.

The president’s room for political maneuver is on vivid display in the polls taken after his speech last week in which he outlined his rationale for sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.

In the weeks leading up to the speech, there was, at best, public division on sending more U.S. troops into harm’s way. Poll questions were asked in several formats, yielding somewhat different responses.

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Most often, voters were asked whether the number of U.S. troops should be increased, kept the same or decreased. In no poll during the fall did more than 39 percent favor increasing our troop strength.

Another form of the question asked respondents whether they favored or opposed sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. No more than 46 percent favored additional troops, and at least a plurality opposed an increase, in every fall survey. Some were quite lopsided. A mid-October CNN poll found Americans opposing more troops by a 20-point margin.

A straw in the wind, presaging the president’s influence, came in another question posed by CNN, before the speech, which asked, “If Barack Obama decided to send about 34,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, would you favor or oppose that decision?” Framed as an Obama decision, Americans favored the deployment by a narrow one-point margin.

The president’s decision, and the case he communicated to the country, changed public views. CNN’s most recent poll revealed that 62 percent now favor

“President Obama’s plan to send about 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan” — just 36 percent oppose. The USA Today poll showed an 11-point margin in support of Obama’s decision.

President Obama’s ability to lead public opinion in the short term is clear. (While George Bush rallied the country behind the invasion of Iraq at its inception, he never garnered majority support for his surge there.)

But what happens down the road?

Here we enter the realm of prophecy. However, experience teaches that, at some point, the American public will reach a judgment about the “success” of this surge.

Some argue that judgment will be based on causalities, which will likely escalate as our presence grows. While each is an infinite tragedy, academic studies have concluded that casualties by themselves do not erode support for military action. Let one misreading of opinion tell the story.

After the “Black Hawk Down” casualties in Somalia, Washington subscribed to the theory that public opinion had shifted dramatically against our involvement. However, four polls taken just after the incident found 55 percent to 75 percent in favor of sending more U.S. troops to Somalia.

In truth, the specific touchstones of “success” are difficult to define, though, as with pornography, people know it when they see it. Clarity of purpose and continuing progress toward goals are certainly central elements in determining whether the public judges military action to be successful.

Even as Americans offer support to the president’s Afghanistan policy, they divide almost evenly when asked whether we are likely to achieve our goals. Responding to another set of questions, some two-thirds believe it is unlikely that Afghan forces will be able to ensure security without the U.S. or that Afghans will be able to prevent terrorists from using their country as a base.

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Only 29 percent foresee victory, while 57 percent expect nothing better than stalemate.

By nearly two to one, Americans believe circumstances in Afghanistan will not be good enough to begin withdrawing troops in 2011.

If the public’s predictions about the situation on the ground prove correct, support for the Afghan surge may well evaporate.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.