Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Oh, But I Like Him Personally"

You probably heard, if not the report itself, of its finding, a couple of months ago:

A new national poll suggests that President Obama is personally more popular than his policies.

Three in four Americans say President Obama has the personal qualities a president should have, the poll shows.

The CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, released Monday, also indicates that 63 percent of Americans approve of how Obama is handling his duties as president. One in three questioned in the poll disapprove.

Democrats overwhelmingly approve of how Obama is handling his job as president; 61 percent of independents agree. Only 28 percent of Republicans say the president is doing a good job in office.

The survey, released two days before Obama marks 100 days in the White House, indicates that three in four Americans feel Obama has the personal qualities a president should have. But when asked whether Obama agrees with the respondent on the issues, that number drops to 57 percent.

"Americans have two different assessments of President Obama. One, personal. The other, policy," CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider said.

There are four possible interpretations of this conclusion:

1) It is both accurate and significant. This is about as likely as snow this weekend in south Florida because if accurate it is only because of #2.

2) This is the way it typically runs with a U.S. President. Unless given good reason to think otherwise, we like our presidents; they represent us to the world. They symbolize America, not unlike the U.S. soccer team competing in the World Cup.

3) Hey, the guy's black. Do you think I (a poll respondent) am going to tell you I don't like him? (Note: Please don't confuse this with racism.)

4) It's a mistaken impression. It's difficult, particulary in this super-charged, partisan, and hostile atmosphere, to disagree with a president's policies but actually to like him. Probably, we (think Rush Limbaugh) will believe him stupid, deceptive, or racist. Or maybe a Muslim or a foreigner.

The meme that Obama- but not his policies- is popular serves the purpose of a mainstream media which, generally, always has liked Obama, was excited about being a part of history being made, and would like him to govern from the center. But it's simply not accurate.

On Tuesday night, Rachel Maddow interviewed Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Rieckhoff has evinced no evidence of being a partisan Republican, but, discussing General General McChrystal and Afghanistan, he made a few critical remarks (italicized) about Barack Obama:

MADDOW: So, President Obama made clear today that this is a change in personnel, not policy. Would this have been the right time to reassess the overall counterinsurgency policy in Afghanistan?

RIECKHOFF: I think we should be constantly reassessing our policy in Afghanistan. I think folks on the ground are constantly reassessing it. But I think, you know, there‘s also a larger message here. I don‘t know if the American public is really engaged here and I don‘t know if the White House has been fully engaged.

Now, look, McChrystal was out of lines and what he said definitely was out of bounds and he sends a poor message to the troops. But I think there‘s something to be drilled down in here. For the counterinsurgency doctrine to succeed, you need that full support of everybody in the civilian authority. You need that full support of every political resource. And there are a lot of folks who believe, who follow parts of what McChrystal said and feel like they‘re not getting those resources.

If you‘re a soldier on the ground in Afghanistan right now, you know you have the bullets, you know you have the bombs, but you don‘t always feel like you have all those bits and pieces alongside you to commit to that fight.

MADDOW: In terms of the relationship between the political debate here, Paul, and what‘s happening on the ground, I thought one of the things that Michael Hastings highlighted effectively in this “Rolling Stone” piece was soldiers complaining to General McChrystal about counterinsurgency.

Is there a lack of buy-in on this doctrine from frontline soldiers and from frontline soldiers who are coming home as new vets?

RIECKHOFF: I think there‘s a lack of buy-in nationwide. I don‘t think everybody is absolutely clear on what we‘re doing in Afghanistan. And I think that‘s in part because the president hasn‘t been focused on it. And I think we‘ve really got to drill down deep and hear part of what‘s coming out of the military.
McChrystal was a rock star. A lot of people in the field really support him 100 percent, feel like he has a sophisticated understanding of what‘s happening on the ground. He comes from the Special Operations community. All those pieces are critical.

But there are a lot of folks who feel like he wasn‘t getting the support he needed. And that maybe comes out in the wash over the next couple of weeks. Petraeus, everybody loves Petraeus. That‘s going over very well.

But the question is: what happens to the guys on the ground in the next couple of months when the casualties do increase and the fighting does get more complex?

MADDOW: What kind of support would McChrystal need in order to alleviate some of these doubts? What kind of focus would need to be demonstrated on this issue that would make a difference both to soldiers in the field and to the military brass that need to make decisions about how connected they are to political leadership?

RIECKHOFF: Well, I‘d ask you and I ask everybody watching right now:
how much are we talking about Afghanistan last week? How much were we talking about Afghanistan over the last month? I mean, folks have focused on BP, with good reason. People are focused on the economy.
But for the most part, I think a lot of folks on the ground feel like the country is not always paying attention. And if there is an upside that comes outs of all of this in the next couple of weeks and all the controversy that follows, I think we‘re going to be focused on Afghanistan, and that‘s something that‘s good for the folks on the ground, that‘s good for the country.

If we have a re-evaluation of the policy debate, that‘s a good thing. If it gets more attention, if only from the bully pulpit, and if only from the president, to commit to those folks on the ground when we really needed it, then that‘s going to be a positive outcome of all this controversy.

MADDOW: Let me ask you, though, Paul, in all honesty. And you and I have known each other a long time. Is it always a net benefit to have jerks like me and talking heads on television, partisan or not, talking about the war effort and talking about strategy, talking about tactics when we‘re this removed from it? I mean, I don‘t buy you have to listen to the generals on the ground and civilian leadership doesn‘t have a role. I‘m certainly not part of civilian leadership, but recognizing that I‘m part of the echo chamber and part of the political—I guess, political sphere in this country, sometimes, I worry about that we‘re just spinning our wheels and we‘re not actually helping when we do talk about it.

RIECKHOFF: There‘s a divide. There‘s clearly a divide. In the last couple of days, I‘ve been frustrated because a lot of people on television talking about counterinsurgency, talking about the Uniform Code of Military Justice, who have no idea what the heck they‘re talking about. And that is frustrating for somebody who comes from the military.

But there‘s also a frustration with the White House. They‘ve been missing some of the easy things, things like going to Arlington on Memorial Day. Things like—there‘s a director of Wounded Warrior Foreign Policy named Matt Flavin focused on the veteran groups and military groups, he‘s left and going over to the Department of Defense. Nobody has replaced him.

Michelle Obama has talked a lot about military families. But we don‘t see any points on the board. He‘s an anti-war Democrat who doesn‘t have a history of serving in the military. He‘s got to work harder to bridge that gap and he‘s got to work on it harder on all the time.

MADDOW: How do you get—how do you shed the label anti-war by doing
when you tripled the number of troops and leaders since you‘ve been president?

RIECKHOFF: Look, I‘m telling you about—there‘s always going to a rub with the military. When he comes in as someone who hasn‘t served on the ground, who is anti-war in his campaign stuff.

Now, he‘s changed that. I‘m not saying that you go can‘t support the troops and be anti-war. But he‘s got to work harder at it. This is an area of vulnerability for him. Command and control, understanding the military has always been an area of vulnerability for him and he has to work that much harder to get support of folks in the field.

MADDOW: Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, somebody who I have always enjoyed fighting with these things about—thanks a lot for your time. Good to see you.

RIECKHOFF: My pleasure, Rachel. Thank you.

Paul Rieckhoff is only one person, but a representative of an important organization. And what is the common thread in his criticism?

He is criticizing Barack Obama. Not President Obama's policies, but Barack Obama. The White House has not been "fully engaged;" the President "hasn't been focused;" Obama has not yet "commit(ted) to those folks on the ground;" there is a "frustration with the White House" (which should have) "gone to Arlington on Memorial Day;" Obama lacks an "understanding (of) the military" and thus has failed "to get support of folks in the field."

But most telling was the remark

He‘s an anti-war Democrat who doesn‘t have a history of serving in the military. He‘s got to work harder to bridge that gap and he‘s got to work on it harder on all the time.

Rieckhoff and Maddow were talking about Afghanistan. Afghanistan, the country the last President virtually ignored, shortchanging the American soldiers there while concentrating on a war (in Iraq) of far less strategic significance in a nation of far less strategic importance. Afghanistan, a war whose importance Senator Obama emphasized and to which President Obama has committed 30,000 additional soldiers. Afghanistan, a war in whose command he has now placed the most respected and revered general alive in America.

Yet Paul Rieckhoff, discussing the war in Afghanistan, calls President Obama "an anti-war Democrat." The war is going poorly but President Obama, with an opportunity to begin withdrawal of the soldiers or de-emphasize the mission, now has pledged "unity of effort across our alliance and across my national security team" in the effort to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda" (love that alliteration).

But Rieckhoff calls Obama "an anti-war Democrat." Maybe he is "anti-war" at heart and/or by instinct; not, however, by policy, at least so far. Rieckhoff is couching an animus toward Barack Obama the man (a legitimate point of view) in policy terms. Barack Obama seems anti-war; his background is anti-war; he is a black man from Harvard Law; gosh, he must be anti-war. That is what Rieckhoff is reacting to. His problem (and perhaps that of the soldiers he believes he is representing) is not with the President's policy but with Obama. However, he won't quite say so..... not unlike all those people, whom CNN believes, like the guy, but not those darned liberal policies.

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