By Paolo von Schirach
June 22, 2011
WASHINGTON– President Obama just announced the end of the surge in Afghanistan. 10,000 US troops will be withdrawn between this July and the end of 2011. 20,000 more will be gone by the end of 2012 and we are still on target to hand over security to the Afghan Government by the end of 2014. Quite frankly, all this is not very meaningful. I have said before and repeat now that the counter insurgency strategy we have been following since Obama got Stanley McChrystal first and then David Petraeus to lead the effort is wrong. A lighter US foot print should have been pursued in order to ensure the American strategic objective of preventing the use of Afghan territory to become a base for anti-American terror.
Announcement about Afghan policy politically insignificant
However, whatever the opinions on Afghanistan, from a US domestic political perspective, this announcement about troop withdrawals is unlikely to change many votes down the line. The war is generally unpopular among Americans who do not have the time to study the effects of special ops night raids on Taliban cadres and who cannot figure out Pashtu politics versus Tajik grievances. The beginning of a withdrawal process is not going to make Obama more popular. Americans vaguely remember that Osama bin Laden had plotted the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan. But they tuned out on this poor country long ago. And the recent bin Laden killing was interesting news for about 5 minutes. Obama got a bit of a bump in the polls. But it did not last.
War is not the big 2012 story, the economy is the issue
Very simply, while in 2008 the War in Iraq was a major issue, do not count on Afghanistan to play the same role in 2012. If it will play any, it will be mildly negative, as Americans are tired of the whole thing. Hard for Obama to get much political traction by asserting that he’s got a winning strategy and that his plan worked. True or false, it does not matter. People are not interested.
What matters now for America is the state of the US economy. And here things are not good. And since Americans still believe that the president is some kind of CEO of America Inc., if the economy suffers greatly, the CEO is to be blamed.
Obama can do whatever he wants in Afghanistan; but if the US economy does not improve substantially between now and November 2012, he may get fired.
New poll not encouraging for Obama
Indeed, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, four out of five people now believe the economy is in poor shape. Unless there is a major improvement in the forecast, Obama’s job approval will continue to be dangerously low. As the Associated Press reports, “For the first time this year in AP-GfK polling, respondents who say Obama deserves re-election have fallen below 50 percent into a virtual split of 48-47 in favor, a demanding challenge for him”
Unemployment is at 9.1%. The housing crisis is still in full swing. Foreclosures continue. The price of gasoline declined, but it is still nearly 90 cents higher than a year ago.
In the new AP-GfK poll, Obama’s approval is down to 52%, back to his popularity levels before the killing of bin Laden. Women seem to be running for the exit: from 57% approving him, they are now down to 48%. This is a key constituency for Obama. If the erosion continues, this may be big trouble. Major losses also among independents, down to 43% from 62% in June 2010.
One more poll does not tell the whole story. And polls do change, as people change their minds quite frequently, and at times abruptly. But it is clear that a consistently weak economy is hurting president Obama. And it is also clear that his handling of the economy will be the dominant issue of the 2012 elections.
Obama may still make it, thanks to the Republicans
And yet, all this baggage notwithstanding, Obama may still make it, care of an opaque Republican Party, incapable thus far of firing up America. Right now, the rallying cry of the Republicans is fiscal responsibility. However, while important, in fact absolutely critical, fiscal responsibility by itself is not going to build a huge wave of national support. And why not? Because it is mostly about taking stuff away from people.
America can reform its seriuosly deteriorated finances only by reducing entitlement spending. Any reasonable person knows this. Sure, you can cut defense and you can also raise taxes. But, in order to attack a 14 trillion national debt, you have to cut the programs that absorb more than 60% of total outlays. And that’s Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Anybody who cares to look at a pie chart of the US Federal Budget clearly showing the huge slices represented by entitlement programs can figure this up in about 10 minutes. (No, America, we cannot balance by the budget by cutting foreign aid, by closing down the US Embassy in Malawi, or by abolishing NASA or the Department of Education. That would save pocket change. It is your Medicare bill that makes a big difference).
Republicans will not win on an austerity platform alone
Unfortunately, the problem is that people do not want to be reasonable and accept reality. Election time is rarely a time of reason. A Republican political platform focused mostly on drastic spending cuts (of the stuff people enjoy getting) is not popular. The GOP policy message addendum whereby budget cuts will miracolously trigger a wave of private investments and enterprise that in turn will create millions of jobs is a nice idea in which most people do not believe. Period. Whereas people getting money from Uncle Sam just want more of it coming their way. As for the disastrous fiscal consequences of this constant hemorrhage, let someone else worry about them.
And do remember that, before Obama, the Republicans run the economic policy show and they almost destroyed the country. So, if Obama’s record is bad, the GOP free market credentials are also tarnished. When people think “private sector” they think “Wall Street”. As the memory of the financial crisis debacle is still too fresh, who believes in the genius and integrity of corporations? Nobody.
Vote for Obama, he will keep entitlements intact
So, as neither party has a believable record on economic management, if Obama can successfully paint the Republicans as unrepentant, scary characters who will cut Medicare and Medicare and who will plot once more to privatize Social Security, while still unable to run the economy, many people may decide that, even though the economy under Obama is bad, at least Obama will not take their safety nets away. And so in the end they’ll vote for him.