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NYT: Slim majority backs Afghan troop plan

NYT: A slim majority supports President Obama's plan to send more troops to Afghanistan, but many are skeptical that the escalation would reduce the chance of a terrorist attack, a new poll finds.
/ Source: The New York Times

A bare majority of Americans support ’s plan to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, but many are skeptical that the United States can count on Afghanistan as a partner in the fight or that the escalation would reduce the chances of a domestic terrorist attack, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

In the wake of the president’s address last week explaining his decision, the poll found a 10 percentage point increase in public approval of Mr. Obama’s handling of the war in Afghanistan since last month, to 48 percent. But the shift reflects a twist on the political polarization that has marked much of Mr. Obama’s first year in office: Republican and independent voters are rallying behind Mr. Obama as he presses for the troop escalation, while Democrats remain decidedly cool to his war plans.

The poll showed a steady slide in support for Mr. Obama as he approaches the end of his first year in office. His job approval rating has now hit 50 percent, the lowest yet in this poll; it was 68 percent at its peak in April. The percentage of Americans who approve of his handling of the economy has dropped to 47 percent from 54 percent in October. And 42 percent approve of the way he is handling health care, down five percentage points in the last few months.

Mr. Obama has spent much of the past three months trying to rally support for a health care bill and formulating a plan for Afghanistan. But in the poll, 12 percent of respondents said health care was the biggest problem facing the nation, while just 2 percent named Afghanistan. Nearly 50 percent listed the economy or jobs.

Questioning for the survey began on Friday, the day the government announced a decline in the unemployment rate to 10 percent from 10.2 percent and a sharp drop off in the rate of job loss in November, and as the White House embarked on an effort to present Mr. Obama as focused on the economy and jobs.

The support for Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan policy is decidedly ambivalent, and the nation’s appetite for any intervention is limited. Over all, Americans support sending the troops in by 51 percent to 43 percent, while 55 percent said setting a date to begin troop withdrawals was a bad idea.

Nearly 6 in 10 respondents said they did not want troops to remain there for more than two years; that includes 32 percent who said troops should leave within a year. Mr. Obama said that he would begin withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan in July 2011, but the administration has said the time it takes to withdraw would be contingent on conditions on the ground.

Just under half thought the United States would succeed in what Mr. Obama said was a central mission: preventing terrorists from using Afghanistan as a base of support, while 39 percent said they thought an increased effort in Afghanistan would make the United States safer from a domestic terrorist attack.

The poll also found that despite Mr. Obama’s address to the nation last week, in which he sought to lay out a justification for the mission, nearly half of the respondents said that he had not clearly explained his plan.

The poll underscores the extent to which Mr. Obama has defied Democrats on the war. About two-thirds of Republicans support the troop escalation, while 53 percent of Democrats oppose it. Conversely, most Republicans oppose Mr. Obama’s proposal to set a date to start pulling out troops, while Democrats applaud it.

The percentage of Republicans who approve of Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan policy has increased 19 percentage points since November to 42 percent; 55 percent of Democrats approved, little changed since last month.

The poll was conducted by telephone from Friday through Tuesday night, with 1,031 respondents and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The poll suggested a divide between Democrats who approve of Mr. Obama’s job performance over all, even as they are upset with Afghanistan, and Republicans who disapprove of Mr. Obama’s job performance over all, even if they are happy with what he is doing in Afghanistan.

“We’ve got to chase the out and end the war in Afghanistan, and we can’t do that unless we have more troops there than we have now,” Elizabeth Ledwith, 77, a Republican from Glenside, Pa., said in a follow-up interview.

But, Ms. Ledwith added: “Over all, I disapprove because Obama is putting us in terrible debt for years down the road by giving away all this money. Whenever anything happens, he throws a few more billion dollars at it.”

By contrast, Karen Herald, 67, a Democrat from Corvallis, Ore., said she liked that Mr. Obama was “not George Bush.”

“I think he presents a really good face for America,” Ms. Herald said.

But, she said: “I think he’s dealing with the kind of situation that no amount of military troops will help. I’m uneasy about sending more troops because I think the war is probably not winnable.”

More than 80 percent of Democrats said they approved of Mr. Obama’s job performance, compared with 19 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of independents.

Nearly 70 percent of Republicans said the United States was doing the right thing by fighting in Afghanistan; fewer than half of the Democrats shared that view. Over 60 percent of Republicans said the additional troops would make the United States safer from terrorism, compared with 28 percent of Democrats.

Megan Thee-Brennan and Marina Stefan contributed reporting.

This report, "Slim majority back Afghan troop increase, poll shows," first appeared in The New York Times.