He should have kept things simple and shone the spotlight on himself, US troops, and Afghans. Everyone knows he has a war to sell and how complicated Afghanistan is in its own right, so why not stay within limitation?
“Here in Afghanistan you’ve gone on the offensive,” he told soldiers from all four branches at Bagram Airfield. “And the American people back home are noticing. We have seen a huge increase in support in - stateside, because people understand the kinds of sacrifices that you guys are making, and the clarity of mission that you’re bringing to bear.”
Later he would personally assure Afghan President Hamid Karzai, “The American people are encouraged by the progress that has been made.”
Actually a large minority of Americans aren’t encouraged, having seen little to no progress from their perspective.
Some believe Karzai is both puppet and master of America, that Obama is helpless and stuck with Karzai, that military progress is slowed by an inefficient Afghan government, that Helmand and Kandahar will take longer than July 2011 to secure, that his deadline is politically artificial, that America still craves Afghanistan’s resources and buffer position against China, or that 9/11 grows stale as al-Qaeda moves on to other failed states
But let’s peer directly into the source of Obama’s optimism.
A poll released last week by CNN found that 44% of respondents saying the war is going well for America versus 43% who say things are going badly. The poll found that 48% support the war versus 49% opposed, the first time since May that opposition slipped below 50%.
This equates to a 23% jump since last November, according to CNN Polling Director Keating Holland, when Obama’s prolonged review of the war reached critical mass in public. The poll also indicates that 55% of Americans approve of how Obama is handling Afghanistan, up from 42% last fall.
No huge increase in support for Afghanistan has occurred. A bump, but one disconnected from his own supporters. Boosted by Senator John McCain’s voters more than his own, Republicans rather than Democrats have bounced Obama’s surge after fearing a US withdrawal.
The CNN poll indicates that support for the war is highest among rural Americans.
“A 55-percent majority of people who live in rural areas now support the war, up 14 points since the fall,” Holland said. “That's the biggest increase in support for the war among major demographic categories. Some 58 percent of city residents and 52 percent of suburbanites oppose the war.”
Without excessively demographing rural America, the numbers indicate Obama’s boost of optimism is fueled primarily by his opposition.
A New York Times poll taken the week after his Afghanistan speech at West Point provides additional evidence, finding that two thirds of Republicans supported his troop escalation, while 53% of Democrats opposed it.
Consequently, Republican approval of Obama’s strategy increased 19% to 42% while Democrats’ 55% approval went unchanged, a number equivalent to the current CNN poll. At most he’s enjoying a small bump from his own party. Conversely, 19% and 14% upswings from conservative America roughly fills the overall rise in approval that Obama is citing.
This is good in a way since bipartisan support for the war is preferable, but America’s overall support for the war hasn’t changed in a significant degree. The country is still deeply divided and skeptical on Afghanistan.
But the polls can be broken down further and Obama’s marketing along with it. Beyond the political skew, a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in early February found that 52% of respondents identified the economy as America's most urgent concern. 3% named the Iraq and Afghan wars as the nation's biggest problem.
Though hard to argue against, the most recent Gallup poll found similar results implying that Americans are still relatively tuned out of Afghanistan. This makes them easier targets for manipulation.
Generally speaking they see and respond to the big moving parts - the surge and its military operations, drones, kills. and captures. The latest Associated Press-GfK poll at the beginning of March found that 57% of those surveyed approved his handling of the war in Afghanistan compared with 49% two months earlier. Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings said the polls could be a reaction to Operation Moshtarak in Marjah.
Indeed, that was its main purpose and Obama appears to be cashing in the political capital he believes he won.
But he may not have much. General Stanley McChrystal himself admits Marjah is slow going and still isn’t secure, which isn’t so concerning as when extrapolated to all of Afghanistan, where everything takes longer than expected.
Returning to the New York Times poll in December, though overall approval of Obama’s strategy spiked 10% to 55%, only 42% of respondents said US troops would help the situation. 47% rejected the claim.
26% said Karzai could be trusted, with 61% opposed.
Americans have never held much faith in Karzai, regardless of whether corruption in Kabul is exaggerated or not, and consider his power circle as a key weakness in America’s strategy. So to personally tell him that the American people are encouraged by his progress is legitimately offensive.
There’s no begrudging Obama’s visit to Afghanistan, as some appear to be doing. He should have visited sooner and for longer, whether America plans to stay or leave. Sure his visit could be a distraction from Israel, but he’s always going to have that problem. Obama’s job is to rally the troops and stand in the face of opposition to rally the nation - if he truly believes in the mission.
But putting false words into his own voters mouths and using them to sell the war’s progress will not work. Nor can he cynically manipulate his favorite scapegoats, the demonized cynics, who are innocent skeptics in reality. "A huge increase" in support for the Afghan war is a lie that his own supporters shouldn’t fall for.
At least according to the polls.