- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
President Obama did something unusual yesterday: he sought to allay concerns that his war strategy was not working and answered questions about events in Afghanistan.
It was not unusual that there were concerns about the war strategy. It was unusual that Obama would acknowledge those concerns and speak to them. In fact, it is unusual for Obama to speak about the war at all.
Has there ever been a president who has invested the country so heavily in war who has spoken so little about that investment?
The avoidance of war talk and especially the avoidance of awkward questions about the war may be part of a larger campaign strategy to keep the president away from situations that the campaign does not tightly control. This is a president who has struggled with unscripted gaffes. He does fine when he is delivering prepared remarks with the aid of a teleprompter, but some of his most memorable and damaging comments have been when he was straying from scripted remarks or answering something other than a soft-ball question from the press. The campaign probably calculates that the risks of producing another "you didn’t build that" or "the private sector is doing fine," outweigh any benefits and so restrict the access of even the largely sympathetic press corps.
That sympathetic press corps is starting to get fidgety, however. I have had multiple contacts from reporters in recent days, each thinking about writing some variant of the "why doesn’t President Obama talk about the Afghanistan war" story?
My answer to that question is too complex to fit in a reporter’s quote, alas.
Part of it may be that the president is not an especially effective communicator. Some of his set-piece speeches have gotten high marks, but he really does seem tied to the teleprompter. And, as he showed in the debate leading up to the passage of Obamacare, the president can talk about something without ceasing and still not persuade large majorities of the American public to embrace his policy. Scholars of presidential rhetoric say that this is a more general weakness — that the bully pulpit is more limited than the popular imagination believes, especially when attempting to pass legislation.
Yet despite the limitations of the bully pulpit, most war presidents have recognized the need to communicate with the American public on a regular basis to explain the war, address the inevitable setbacks, and, not inconsequentially, reassure the troops that the president has not forgotten them and still has their back. Moreover, President Obama is willing to talk repeatedly about the Osama bin Laden strike — even when such talk appears to have anything but the effect of reassuring the troops (or at least some of the troops).
Part of the answer is also that Obama’s Afghanistan stance has evolved dramatically from where it was in 2008. When he was last running for president, Obama talked about Afghanistan as the necessary war. He talked like he was committed to winning it, not merely ending it. Now it seems clear that he does not think it is possible to achieve in Afghanistan anything like the definition of success that animated his war stance in 2008. The more he talks about Afghanistan, the more evident this contrast will be.
Part of the answer may also be that because Obama’s war aims have shifted, his de facto policy actually might enjoy majority support. Most Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan and tell pollsters "the U.S. should not be involved in Afghanistan now." Moreover, they approve of the U.S. withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, which is the aspect of his war strategy that Obama emphasizes the most. Of course, Obama scores better with the public on foreign policy more generally than he does on the economy where the public has strongly negative evaluations. Although the question is not asked very often, he also has a slight advantage on Afghanistan. So perhaps the Obama administration believes they are doing as well as can be hoped with the public in this area.
And part of the answer is that Obama has thoroughly lost his base on Afghanistan. It is not clear that the left truly believed in the war in 2008, but it is absolutely clear they do not believe in the war now. The left has not yet mobilized against the Afghanistan war the way they mobilized against the Iraq war, and if Obama wins a second term perhaps they won’t (if Romney wins, I expect anti-war factions to regain some of their 2006 mojo). The Obama campaign has put all of its 2012 electoral bets on a base mobilization strategy, and so the last thing the president wants to do is remind his base of anything he has done that they don’t like.
For all these reasons, and perhaps others, President Obama has largely shirked the traditional commander in chief duty of mobilizing political and public support for the wars he is leading. In contrast with President Bush, who clearly believed in the wars he led and sought every opportunity to try to rally the public to the war cause, President Obama seems far more ambivalent about some of his war duties.
I wonder if Obama faces any pressure inside the White House on this matter. So far as I can tell, the Obama White House has not created a unit like the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), the Bush-era committee charged with explaining the war to the American people. The WHIG is infamous in Bush-hating circles as the "shadowy" organization that allegedly came up with the strategy to "mislead" the American public with "exaggerated" claims about Iraqi WMD. So I guess we should not be surprised that the Obama White House has not created the WHAG, the White House Afghanistan Group.
I was not in the White House during the period when the WHIG was doing the things that drive Bush-haters around the bend. The period I know best is after 2005, by which point the WHIG was focused on something that should seem more appealing to the Obama White House: making sure the American people and their political representatives understood the logic behind the war strategy and were equipped with the best information about the war that could be assembled.
And, crucially, the WHIG spent a fair bit of time thinking through how best to have the president lead in this effort. If the Obama White House is engaged in a similar activity, no reporter I have talked to has uncovered it.
The Obama White House has certainly devoted itself to trying to persuade the public to support the President, and perhaps some of that effort helps shore up support for the war. But so far as I can determine, the Obama White House has not devoted itself to trying to persuade the public to support the war itself — and it doesn’t appear that anyone in the White House has this as a priority item on his or her to do list.