Over Obama’s Shoulder, Wartime Presidents Past

Dec 1, 2009 10:24am

If there’s a shadow over the proceedings as Barack Obama addresses the nation on his plans for Afghanistan tonight, it may be the ghosts of wartime presidents past. Consider the chart below. The data track the average annual approval ratings of the last three presidents to find themselves enmeshed in unpopular wars. The picture is not a pretty one: Harry S. Truman lost 25 points in public approval as the Korean war progressed; Lyndon Johnson, 32 points during the Vietnam war; George W. Bush, 43 points during the war in Iraq.
The die is not necessarily cast for Obama, because public attitudes on Afghanistan at this point are neither firmly set nor strongly negative. But the public has become increasingly skeptical of the war – and the wages of a broadly unpopular war, if that’s what this becomes, are clear. Even allowing for his challenging first full years in office, Truman’s last four – in advance of and then coinciding with the Korean War – were painful. From 54 percent approval in 1949, the year before the war broke out, his average annual approval ratings fell as it raged, to 40 percent in Gallup polls in 1950, then to 28 and 29 percent in 1951 and 1952 – so low that Truman abandoned his re-election campaign and retired to his home in Independence, Mo. Just shy of 12 years later, Johnson took office on a wave of support after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But as he ratcheted up the U.S. war effort in Vietnam, Johnson’s approval, like Truman’s, ebbed away – from 74 percent in 1964 down to 42 percent in 1968, when Johnson, like Truman before him, elected not to run for another term. Then Bush, whose annual approval ratings are strikingly similar to Johnson’s – with the exception that Bush, with a full second term ahead, had longer to linger. He fell from an average of 73 percent approval in 2001-2, before the Iraq war, to annual averages of 62, 50, 46, 39, 34 and then 30 percent through 2008 – a linear descent in which he shattered Truman’s record for the longest period without majority approval and came within a single point of Truman’s record low 22 percent approval in February 1952. (Bush in fact was lower than Truman if you adjust for the differing levels of “undecideds” in these polls.) Another chart shows the relationship between views of the Iraq war and Bush’s approval ratings, the lines following virtually identical paths, with a remarkable correlation of .95 (in which 1 represents perfect congruence, 0 none at all). For the sake of nothing less than his presidency, these are the lines Obama does not want to repeat.  
Afghanistan is its own war, not a reprint of Iraq, Vietnam or Korea, and Obama is his own president; his future lies ahead, not in data from the past. But the challenges are clear. Reiterating our October and November polling results, we find: -His approval rating on handling Afghanistan has fallen more steeply than his approval rating on any other issue, down 18 points from 63 percent last spring to 45 percent in our last measurement a few weeks ago, with  48 percent disapproving. -Discontent is high enough that Obama holds a narrow 5-point edge over the broadly unpopular Republicans in Congress in trust to handle the situation in Afghanistan – compared with, for example, 13 points on health care reform and 15 points on the economy. -Fifty-two percent say the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting; fewer, 44 percent say it has been worth it. The partisan divide is profound; Republicans see the war as worth fighting by 60-32 percent; independents divide precisely, 49-49 percent; Democrats – Obama’s own party – say no, 66-30 percent. -The public divides yet more sharply between a larger increase of U.S. forces to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban as well as to train Afghan troops, or a smaller force focused solely on training – 46-45 percent, again with dramatic partisan divides. -Sixty-four percent think the risk of terrorism is the same whether the United States remains in Afghanistan or withdraws – potentially undermining acceptance of the argument that it is, as Obama said in August, “a war of necessity.” Trust in the Afghan government as a reliable partner of the United States is dismal. And when we asked in October, 63 percent said Obama didn’t have a clear plan on how to proceed. The president will attempt to address these concerns tonight, trying to offer a rationale for the fighting, a clear plan, a definition of success and an ultimate way out. He’s got, from many people, a willing ear; when we asked last month, 55 percent expressed confidence he’d come up with a successful strategy. More than his words, the public will judge his deeds, and above all the course of the war itself in the months ahead. Nonetheless, what may well give Obama and his advisers pause is the way those judgments turned out for the last three presidents to tread a similar path.

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