President Obama will speak to the nation about Afghanistan on Tuesday night -- before an audience of U.S. Military Academy cadets at West Point. He will reportedly announce a decision to send more troops to Afghanistan in the context of a broader overall strategy for that region of the world.
In the process of reaching these decisions, Obama has sought and listened to the advice of many experts, civilian and military. Nonetheless, Obama already faces criticism from politicians on both the right and left.
Will he face criticism from the average American? To answer that question, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. The average American believes that things aren't going well in Afghanistan. Two-thirds of Americans say that things are going badly. This is the worst evaluation of the Afghan involvement to date. It is quite a bit worse than the last evaluation we have of U.S. progress in Iraq. Thus, Obama would do well to acknowledge upfront that he realizes there are significant problems with the current situation for the U.S. in Afghanistan.
2. At the same time, Americans continue to support the basic concept of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Only 36% say it was a mistake for the U.S. to have become involved in that country. That's way lower than the 58% who say Iraq was a mistake for the U.S. Thus, Obama has the luxury of knowing that the average American remains positive about the U.S. decision to get involved in Afghanistan (at least as measured by Gallup's classic "mistake" question). Obama can expect support from the public from his expected decision to stay the course in Afghanistan.
3. The president faces a big challenge in convincing the American public that sending new troops to Afghanistan is the right thing to do. Support for sending more troops has increased over the last several weeks, which is good news for Obama. The not-so-good news is that, even with the recent shift, less than half of Americans would tell Obama to send in more troops. The rest either say that he should begin withdrawing troops, or keep the troop level as it is.
4. Obama's greatest challenge, perhaps, will be justifying the cost of increased involvement in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is not the average American's highest priority. Americans are much more likely to say the economy, jobs, and healthcare are the most important problems facing the country. In fact, more Americans say that the federal budget deficit is the most important problem than mention Afghanistan. This underscores the fundamental point. The public is concerned about government spending. Sending more troops to Afghanistan is going to be very costly. Obama will do well to spend time not only justifying these costs, but telling Americans where the money will come from.
In summary: If President Obama addresses the thoughts, opinions, and concerns of the American people in his address on Afghanistan, he will:
- Acknowledge that things are going badly for U.S.
- Reinforce the basic purpose of being involved in Afghanistan.
- Justify why sending more troops is necessary.
- Address issues of cost and how the escalation is going to be paid for.