President Obama spent last week focusing on the massive BP oil leak, but two other big issues are creeping up on him—Afghanistan and unemployment. Each one could easily have a greater impact on his long-term success or failure than the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico.
By most accounts, the war in Afghanistan isn't going well. American and Afghan casualties are on the rise this spring, and the U.S. effort to subdue insurgents in the key region around Kandahar has run into severe difficulty. American military officials now say their original timetable for a relatively quick offensive there was too optimistic, and it will be a long, tough slog. The problem is the same one that critics of U.S. escalation have always cited: Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires. Suspicion of outsiders runs deep and the United States is widely seen as an occupying power, like Russia and Great Britain in the past. Each was eventually forced to withdraw. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]
The Afghan war is particularly unpopular among Democratic liberals who thought Obama was going to be a dovish president when they backed him in the 2008 primaries. Many liberals are so upset with Obama and majority Democrats in Congress that they may sit out the November elections, which would guarantee Republicans gains. "Afghanistan is pretty close to a deal breaker for many," says a prominent Democratic strategist.
Even the optics are heading in the wrong direction. That was clear when Gen. David Petraeus fainted, apparently from dehydration, during testimony before a Senate committee last week. It wasn't the most reassuring image for the normally unflappable general in charge. But Petraeus was given a vote of confidence when Obama named him to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top commander in Afghanistan. [Read 10 Things You Didn't Know About Petraeus.]
Unlike other problems he is facing, Afghanistan is a situation of Obama's own making. It was the new president, after all, who said Afghanistan was a central front in the war on terrorism, and it was Obama who decided to escalate by approving a "surge" of 30,000 troops. Now, it is Obama who must bear the criticism for the deepening problems.
Unemployment is an even more pressing concern for millions of U.S. households, and if nothing improves by the fall, joblessness could be the Democrats' downfall in the midterm elections. Obama and his aides predicted that the much-ballyhooed "stimulus" bill, which passed last year, would keep unemployment at around 8 percent. But it has remained stubbornly high at around 10 percent. Pollsters say there is no issue as important to most people, and no problem that causes more anxiety. And voters, according to the polls, believe that Obama's record is weak.
Overall, there is a growing critique of Obama as too much of a lawyer, always arguing the nuances of his case, and not enough of a problem solver. "He thinks in legalisms and liabilities instead of practical solutions," says Frank Donatelli, former White House political director for Ronald Reagan and now chairman of the GOPAC conservative political action committee. Donatelli adds that Obama's approach to leadership reminds him of a dictum from law school: When the law and the facts are against you, pound the table. That's what Obama seems to be doing as he deals with the oil leak in the Gulf. Unable to find a way to stop the spill, he is increasingly pointing fingers, especially at BP, the oil company that is responsible for the gusher.
But, as President Kennedy used to say, "Life isn't fair," and Americans tend to blame the president when things go wrong whether he deserves it or not. That's what's happening to Obama. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
There is another problem, at least in the view of conservatives. "He has a reflexive antipathy to business—the banks, the insurance companies, now the oil companies," argues Donatelli, who says this attitude is holding back the economy.
Adds a veteran Democratic strategist: "The challenge of the presidency is to take control. Ronald Reagan did it. Bill Clinton did it. Today, Obama has got to figure out how to take control of things that seem out of control, not cast blame."