Obama’s Political Time Bomb

It’s taken as a given that the unemployment rate will rise—to over 10 percent, a level not seen in more than a quarter-century—before it falls. Conventional wisdom tells us that this is the biggest threat to Barack Obama’s long-term political standing. 

Assuming conditions next fall are as shaky as forecasters believe they will be, the cost for Obama and the Democratic Party could be significant. Republican gains of 20 House seats, a Senate seat or two, and a batch of governorships are all conceivable—a result that would cause massive political headaches for Obama. 

But 2010 is not Obama’s make-or-break year. Bouncing back from a humbling midterm election to win a resounding re-election two years later is something we’ve seen twice in the last four presidencies: Ronald Reagan’s 49-state 1984 landslide came after his party lost 26 House seats in the 1982 elections, and Bill Clinton’s 1996 thumping of Bob Dole came after the brutal 1994 midterms, when Democrats lost the House for the first time in 40 years. 

Conversely, both George Bushs went into their first midterms in relatively good political position. Bush I had just broken his “no new taxes” pledge in the fall of 1990, but he was also in the midst of building an international coalition to expel Iraq from Kuwait; his party’s losses were minimal. And Bush II, still widely popular 14 months after 9/11, actually saw the G.O.P. gain seats (and win back the Senate) in the 2002 midterms. These two presidents, though, had much shakier re-election campaigns than Reagan and Clinton. 

So, at least in terms of recent history, a president’s re-election prospects are bears no relation to his political standing after two years in office. That suggests that whatever political damage the economy exacts on Obama over the next 18 months will probably be forgotten by 2012—assuming the economy, as it did in Reagan’s and Clinton’s third years in office, comes back to life shortly after the midterms. 

But that doesn’t mean that Obama will be home free for 2012, because another political threat looms, one that—unlike the economy—may well get incrementally worse as his re-election year approaches: Afghanistan. 

Already this year, Obama has sent more than 20,000 additional troops to the troubled nation, and more could be on the way soon. But the administration’s goal of creating a stable, centralized, and functional state seems as out of reach as ever. The government in Kabul controls only a fraction of Afghanistan, and the combined U.S. and ally troop presence (even if the American commitment is ratcheted up) seems insignificant against the enormity of the task. 

“4,000 Marines are contesting control of Helmand province, which is the size of West Virginia,” George Will wrote in a recent column in which he called for the withdrawal of most American troops.    

Will’s skepticism is shared by an increasing number of Americans, who have begun thinking more about Afghanistan as Iraq has faded from the front pages: 41 percent, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll earlier this month, now want the troops to come home—nearly double the number from just seven months ago. And only 48 percent approve of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan. 

Obama, though, seems willing to maintain a broad U.S. commitment well into the future.  

“My determination is to get this right," he said this week. “You have to get the strategy right and then make the determinations about resources.”

There is, of course, an argument to be made for this approach, since Afghanistan—unlike Iraq—really is a factory for the terrorists we supposedly went to war with on 9/11. And Obama did campaign on the idea of de-emphasizing Iraq while beefing up the American effort in Afghanistan. But it’s just as fair to wonder—as more and more Americans are—whether the presence of American troops is doing much to stem this terrorist threat, and if the nation-building we are pursuing is even feasible. 

From a political standpoint, this uncertainty is a huge long-term threat to Obama. The public is losing its patience, and so is the president’s own political party. Results aren’t apparent: Casualties continue at the same time that Americans read about the Afghan election debacle. This has the potential to continue well past the 2010 elections—when the war in Afghanistan will be nearly 10 years old—and to undermine Obama’s domestic standing even if the economy is cooking.  

Right now, Americans are fixated on the economy and, secondarily, concerned about Afghanistan. Three years from now it could well be the other way around.