"It's difficult to turn that into a winning issue for Democrats because you're criticizing a Democratic president by doing it. You're going to get continued tepid support for the war and a desire to see a more rapid drawdown from Democrats, but are they going to make that the top of their agenda when you've got ... other issues looming?" said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former State Department policy planning staff member. "I'd say the political space is there for the president to take if he wants it and there are reasons to think that he might."
The change in leadership is also expected to be a game changer. Incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is a seasoned Washington insider who understands the dynamics of Beltway politics. Gates, though tremendously influential in policy planning debates, was considered by many to be an administration outsider. Though he worked that aspect in his favor, it often put him at odds with the officials in the Obama administration.
"He [Panetta] definitely is more of a Democratic party insider, so he's got more of a commitment to the Democratic base and more of a sensibility for Democratic politics and is probably more sensitive to that certainly than Secretary Gates," Markey said.
Panetta's record also has many wondering if the former CIA head has bought into the argument of an expansive military in Afghanistan.
"Panetta in Iraq was a strong proponent of the idea that you need to give the Iraqis a timeline in order to make them prepared for the drawdown and my guess is he will have similar feelings about Afghanistan," said Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and former executive director of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. "I think Panetta might be a little bit more hard-nosed about this idea of making the Afghans stand up to their responsibilities."
But Panetta will have to deal with the realities on the ground as well. Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, echoed Gates' sentiments earlier this month, issuing a warning that there are "consequences" to cutting down troops in the war-torn country.
"It is ultimately the president's decision. And of course ... we need to have congressional support. But they also need to understand consequences," Petraeus said in an exclusive interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer.
But both Gates and Petraeus declined to say whether the United States is winning the war in Afghanistan, only commenting that the country is "making progress."
That could be a tough sell for the public in the long term, especially as the cost factor looms large in debt and deficit debates.
ABC's Jim Sciutto and Martha Raddatz contributed to this report.