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The Hard Sell

How Obama should play the politics of an Afghanistan troop surge.

President Obama faces an enormous political challenge in figuring out how to respond to General Stanley McChrystal's request for more soldiers in Afghanistan. One the one hand, resisting troop requests from the military during a time of war is difficult for any chief executive--particularly for Democratic presidents. On the other hand, Americans are showing little stomach to once again commit more troops to a distant, war-torn region: No recent survey has found majority support for the idea.

No matter what choice Obama makes, he should not be deluded into thinking that his rhetorical gifts can move public opinion on this issue. According to research by Professor George Edwards of Texas A&M University, recent presidents, no matter how golden-tongued, have had virtually no power to change public opinion on foreign policy. Bill Clinton, for example, kicked off a high-profile call to send U.S. peacekeepers to Bosnia with a nationally televised address in November 1995. In response, public approval for the idea hardly moved at all, hovering around 40 percent for the next two years. Likewise, despite repeated pleas to the public, Ronald Reagan never moved support for aiding the Nicaraguan contras beyond the mid-30s.

Additionally, Democratic presidents like Obama face a particular handicap when making major foreign policy moves: For decades, the public has distrusted the Democrats on issues related to national security. That remained true throughout George W. Bush's disastrous handling of the Iraq War. And even in early 2008, when the Republican Party was near its nadir in terms of popularity, survey data from the Pew Research Center indicated that Democrats' best issues remained on the domestic front--health care and education--while foreign policy, terrorism, and even Iraq were all at the bottom of the list. 

While it is true that the Democrats' reputation on foreign policy has experienced a recent uptick--in Pew's August survey, Democrats enjoyed a 13-point lead on foreign policy and a nine-point advantage on Afghanistan--Obama shouldn't allow that fact to lull him into thinking his party has conquered the American public's skepticism. "Issue ownership," as defined by political scientist John Petrocik to mean a party's core reputation for competence on a specific issue, takes a long time to build. It can only be established with a substantial history of attention to problems in a specific policy domain, and a track record of resolving those problems consistently over time. (The Republican edge on foreign policy goes back at least as far as to the fall of the Berlin Wall.) 

Furthermore, research by one of us (Egan) indicates that the public, which tends to know few details about the country's problems and even less about how to solve them, grants the parties some leeway to make policy on issues they "own." By contrast, voters can quickly turn against a party if its leaders advocate unsuccessful policies in an area where they don't have a long-term advantage. In other words, a Bill Clinton can make missteps on a Democratic issue like health care and still get reelected, and a George W. Bush can recover from a massive failure in Iraq. But Barack Obama likely has little margin for error in Afghanistan.

So what can Obama do to navigate this political minefield? While he can't do much to change the public's opinion of the war in Afghanistan itself--some people will inevitably be disappointed, whether he decides to send a lot more troops or not--Obama will have the first chance to frame his decision in the eyes of the public. It is crucial that he make the most of this one-time opportunity to reassure people about his own ability to manage U.S. foreign policy, and lay the groundwork for continued long-term improvements in the public's perception of Democrats on defense-related issues.

To do this, Obama should follow the same format that President Bush used to announce his "surge" in Iraq: an address to the nation from the White House, without the back-and-forth of a press conference. His speech should focus on one theme and one theme only--U.S. national security. If he decides not to give McChrystal all the requested troops, he should explain why moving 80,000 troops into Afghanistan would actually harm U.S. national security by weakening our defenses elsewhere. If he decides to talk about the electoral fraud purportedly perpetrated by Hamid Karzai's supporters, then he has to explain why it hurts U.S. national security to be propping up an illegitimate government.

Doing that could keep him out of the trap that Bill Clinton fell into when he allowed Republicans to frame the mission in Bosnia as a fuzzy-headed nation-building exercise. Current survey data show that Americans are much more enthusiastic about our military presence in Afghanistan--to the tune of 30 percentage points--if it is framed as an attempt to weaken terrorists' ability to attack the United States, rather than an attempt to build a stable democracy. Obama should repeat the first of these rationales over and over again. He should never mention the second one in a speech to the American people.

Once he has decided the new policy, it is also crucial that the military leadership appears to be on his side. Whether or not it was appropriate for General McChrystal to publicly voice his opinions in recent weeks, nothing will undercut Obama faster than a perception that the generals disagree with his policy. Obama must ensure that everyone involved in the “war councils,” both military and civilian, publicly supports whatever choice he ultimately makes.

And if, as appears likely, Obama decides to grant McChrystal an intermediate number of troops--especially if it is 20,000 or more--then he should consider framing (as is currently being done by some media outlets) it as a replication of the now successful "surge" strategy in Iraq. Obama can stress that he's proposing a surge not only in form but also in substance—that is, a temporary escalation that will be followed by gradual transfer of responsibilities to Afghan security forces and then a draw-down. A counterintuitive move for sure, but one that would defray criticism from the right, since Obama could say his escalation is at least as audacious as President Bush's (whose request also numbered 20,000 troops). At the same time, it could help him blunt dissatisfaction on the left by invoking a credible vision of how he will end the war: Polls show that Americans think Obama has done a good job in Iraq, where he’s been drawing down troops following the successful surge there. It would also give Obama an opportunity to do one of the things he does best: graciously acknowledge the other side of the aisle--and in particular, his 2008 nemesis John McCain--for advocating the idea in the first place.

If Obama takes all of these precautions, he just might contain the political fallout from a painful foreign policy choice. Let's hope he does. After all, Afghanistan may turn out to be the most challenging foreign policy decision of Obama’s presidency, but it is unlikely to be last one on which he needs public support.

Patrick J. Egan is an assistant professor of politics and public policy at New York University, where he studies public opinion, public policy, and their relationship in American politics. Joshua A. Tucker is an associate professor of politics at New York University, a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a co-author of the political science and policy blog The Monkey Cage.