PRINCETON, NJ -- President Obama has managed to thread the needle with his newly announced Afghanistan strategy, with his approach winning the approval of a majority of both Democrats (58%) and Republicans (55%) in a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Wednesday night. At the same time, less than a majority of independents approve (45%). Among Americans overall, 51% approve of the strategy while 40% disapprove.
"Obama's new policy has managed to bridge the pre-existing partisan gap on this issue to some degree, bringing the support levels of Democrats and Republicans closer together."
The question used in Wednesday's poll explicitly associated the policy with President Obama, and included a reference to both the increase of 30,000 U.S. troops and the setting of a timetable that calls for the U.S. to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 2011.
The overall 51% positive reaction to the new policy is slightly higher than the 47% who in a November poll (before Obama's new policy was announced) supported the basic concept of increasing troops in Afghanistan.
The rough similarity between the responses to two questions on Afghanistan masks a significant difference in partisan sentiment. When asked earlier about just sending troops, Democrats were much less likely than Republicans to be in favor. Now, in response to the new question asking specifically about Obama's multipart strategy, including references to increasing troops and to the timetable, Democrats and Republicans show similar levels of support. (Independents' attitudes are roughly the same in both polls.)
More generally, Obama's new policy has managed to bridge the pre-existing partisan gap on this issue to some degree, bringing the support levels of Democrats and Republicans closer together. This is an unusual situation. Most major policy initiatives that a president promulgates find support among the president's own party and opposition among the other party. In the current situation, Obama has, at least in the short term, generated majority support among Democrats -- who previously had been opposed to a troop increase in Afghanistan -- while holding on to majority support among Republicans. Obama's continuing problem appears to be independents, less than half of whom support the new policy.
The survey included questions asking Americans to evaluate two key components of Obama's new policy: the level of new U.S. troops being sent to Afghanistan, and the setting of a specific timetable for beginning to withdraw troops.
Overall, Americans are split on the troop-level component. Most believe that the number of new troops being sent as part of the new strategy is either too high (36%) or about right (38%). Relatively few Americans believe the number of additional troops is "too low" (18%).
Roughly the same percentage of Republicans and Democrats (38% to 39%) say the announced troop increase is "about right." But Democrats who disagree with the increase are much more likely to say that the troop levels are too high than too low, while Republicans who disagree tilt in the other direction. Independents have much the same pattern of sentiments as Democrats.
Regarding the timetable component of Obama's new policy, the plurality of Americans, 46%, say it is too soon to set a timetable for beginning to withdraw troops. The rest are split between the belief that the U.S. should begin withdrawing troops earlier and agreement with the timetable.
Republicans' reactions to the idea of a timetable are strongly negative: 72% say it is too soon to set one. Democrats are much more evenly split on the issue. Thirty-five percent agree with the timetable as announced, while 34% say it is too soon to set a timetable and 27% say the troops should be withdrawn sooner. Independents' views fall in between those of the two groups.
All in all, slightly more than half of Americans support Obama's new policy in Afghanistan, while 4 out of 10 oppose it. The president at the moment enjoys an unusual situation in which a majority of both Democrats and Republicans favor his newly announced strategy. This level of bipartisan support is counterbalanced to a degree, however, by the fact that less than half of independents support the plan.
Well less than half of Democrats agree either with the level of new troops the U.S. is sending or with the specifics of the new timetable. Similarly, less than half of Republicans agree with either of these two components, and almost three out of four Republicans disagree with the concept of setting a timetable at this point.
Thus, partisan reactions to the specific components of the new plan do not explain the majority support for the plan among both Republicans and Democrats.
It may be that while Democrats disagree with the specifics of the timetable as announced, they approve of the idea of having any timetable included. And it may be that while Republicans strongly disagree with the having any timetable included, they approve of the general idea of an increase of troop levels.
Whatever the explanations, the bottom line at the moment is that Obama has managed to generate a slim majority support among all Americans for his new policy. Obama faces the highest level of skepticism among independents, but has knit together a coalition of support that includes a majority of both Democrats and Republicans. Given that in large part, political and pundit voices that are solidly partisan are debating Afghanistan, this majority approval level among Democrats and Republicans may be the most politically significant short-term reaction to the new policy.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,005 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 2, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones and cellular phones.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
Polls conducted entirely in one day, such as this one, are subject to additional error or bias not found in polls conducted over several days.