It may be, however, that the presidencies of Truman and Johnson present a more pertinent comparison. In each of those cases, an unpopular war deprived a Democratic president of his shot at reelection even though, viewed objectively, things were getting better militarily. Public opinion about long wars seems to generate irresistible momentum. Once the public sours on a war, even spectacular military success—think of Bush’s surge in Iraq—can’t turn things around.
If that’s so, we must be getting close to the point of no return with respect to the war in Afghanistan. Consider this ABC News-Washington Post poll (my emphasis):
Bush was lucky to be running for reelection in 2004, before Iraq’s descent into sectarianism butchery in early 2006 hardened public opinion against the war once and for all. And it didn’t hurt that he was a running against a candidate who, having voted for the war in the Senate and decided to run for the presidency as a paragon of martial virtue, couldn’t get his story straight about the war. So Bush could squeak through by tending to a Republican base that was still solidly behind the war.“Public dissatisfaction with the war, now the nation's longest, has spiked by 7 points just since July. Given its costs vs. its benefits, only 34 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll say the war's been worth fighting, down by 9 points to a new low, by a sizable margin.
“Negative views of the war for the first time are at the level of those recorded for the war in Iraq, whose unpopularity dragged George W. Bush to historic lows in approval across his second term. On average from 2005 through 2009, 60 percent called that war not worth fighting, the same number who say so about Afghanistan now. (It peaked at 66 percent in April 2007.)”
That path isn’t open to Obama. Opposition to the Afghanistan war is emanating outward from his base. That means that, if Obama intends to press ahead with the war much past July of next year, he’ll have to depend on the support of the Republican congressional caucus and endure pot shots from influential figures in his own party. I can’t see why that should work any better for him than it did for Truman and Johnson.