Diverted by the cacophony of war in Libya, the ongoing earthquake disaster in Japan and the ongoing budget fight, the mainstream media basically downplayed or ignored a March 15 Washington Post/ABC News poll which showed American support for the Afghanistan war seriously eroding. For the first time since the war there began almost a decade ago, nearly two of three surveyed said the battle is not worth fighting.
Normally, such a dramatic turn in public sentiment against a war would rate screaming headlines and endless speculation on how that might affect President Obama’s political standing and re-election chances in 2012. Not to mention how it might influence or alter his Afghanistan drawdown plan set to begin in July and his strategies in Libya and other upheavals in the Middle East.
The Post gave it a mention, but little more: “The finding signals a growing challenge for President Obama,” the report blandly suggested.
That’s sharp contrast to media reporting and opining in June 2004 when public sentiment turned negative on Iraq. Back then, the media flooded us with all kinds of stories about what a devastating blow this was to then-president George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election chances. Even after he-was re-elected, and support for the war continued to drop, the major theme of media coverage was how negatively the bad news was affecting Bush himself.
A headline on a story I wrote in USA Today in April 2006 is illustrative: “Iraq speeches have done little to buoy war support; Americans tune out as casualties, violence drown out Bush's message.”
Here’s a headline from The Post in June 2006: “Democrats Press Bush Harder On Iraq; Words Reflect Drop in Public Support for War."
These examples underscore how Bush was at the center of most news coverage of Iraq, positive or negative. Not so for Obama and Afghanistan.
He largely skates above most media coverage of that war, and not by accident. The war is not going well, and he doesn’t want to maximize his personal connection. Yet, he is the one whom while running for president called Iraq the “wrong” war, and Afghanistan the “right” war. Some have even called Afghanistan “Obama’s War.” But he avoids personally talking about it publically as much as he can. And the news media allow him get away with it.
We hear Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talk about Afghanistan. We hear Defense Secretary Robert Gates talk about Afghanistan. We hear Gen. David Patraeus talk about Afghanistan. And we hear Vice President Biden talk about Afghanistan. But we rarely hear in person from the commander in chief.
“The two leaders agreed on the importance of reestablishing peace in Afghanistan through progress on transition, an enduring U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership, and reconciliation.”
Not much there. It hardly rated a mention in the next day’s news accounts.
The best I can tell (and I could be mistaken) the last time Obama publically uttered the word “Afghanistan” was March 28 when he mentioned it in passing in his speech justifying U.S. action in Libya.
On April 5, he sent Congress a report on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but made no public statement about what it said. He issued written statements deploring the recent killing of United Nations workers in Afghanistan in retaliation for a Florida pastor’s burning of the Koran, but no public condemnations.
The last time Obama specifically devoted a full public speech to Afghanistan was Dec. 9, 2009, 16 months ago, when he announced at West Point that he was sending an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to that war-torn country.
His hour-long State of the Union speech in late January gave Afghanistan eight sentences. And so it goes. He brings up Afghanistan from time to time in other contexts, but mostly leaves the dirty work to administration surrogates such as Biden, Clinton and Gates. Meanwhile, he hopscotches the country making speeches on everything from energy independence to education.
Contrast that with Bush, who appeared to talk about little other than Iraq, largely because there was little media interest in anything else he said. As the article I wrote and cited above noted, Bush delivered 14 speeches on Iraq over a seven-month period in 2005-2006. That’s an average of two a month. Nonetheless, his job approval on handling that war hardly moved.
To be sure, Obama is watching the polls on Afghanistan. And he knows there are few political points to be scored by talking about it as long as public support is waning and progress is difficult to demonstrate. A White House-planned leak attributed to “sources” last week suggested the president wants a faster drawdown of U.S. troops than the Pentagon is planning. If that’s his view, why not say it publicly? He can only get away with his Afghanistan silence as long as the media let him. And so far, they are letting him, rather than smoking him out.
Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent/columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American and Georgetown universities.