Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Obama 2012: Some really early thoughts....

LFP = Light Foot Print, meaning drones, CIA paramilitary operators and SOCOM

The above chart represents my guess, as of right now, about how the different scenarios will play out for both Obama's choice on Afghanistan and the economy.  I've come up with three scenarios (good, bad and ugly) for each and handicapped Obama's reelection chances if each scenario comes to pass.

On the economy:

Three words: jobs jobs jobs.

As you can see, my ugly scenario involves us heading into approximately January/February 2012 with unemployment =/>10%. Under this scenario, Obama might as well step aside and give Hillary Clinton or Jim Webb a shot at the presidency, because he will be unable to even campaign. Also, he'll be able to do whatever he wants in Afghanistan and it and won't matter, because with an economy in that condition no one will be paying attention to Afghanistan. I find this scenario the least likely of the three.

My bad scenario has unemployment hovering somewhere between 6 and 10% basically for all of Obama's first term. My gut tells me we stay on the high side of that range, maybe an average of around 8.5% for Obama's whole first term. But the absolute unemployment rate probably matters less than the trend line in early 2012, and if the president can catch a couple of lucky breaks he could make the "morning in America" argument if unemployment is dropping from 8.5 or 9% in 2011 down to 7 or 8% in 2012. Indeed, after four years of suffering such a rapid drop will wind up looking very refreshing to most Americans.

In the bad (and most likely) scenario, the economy is just bad enough to make the race against (insert not-Palin here) competitive but just good enough to make reelection possible. In this scenario Afghanistan could matter a great deal if it is handled wrong. First, if Obama goes with my bad Afghan scenario and either completely withdraws or leaves behind just Spec Ops guys and killer robots, maybe, just maybe, the American people will be so sick of war and so happy with the relative economic gains that they will be willing to overlook the Republicans attack on Obama's "surrender"* to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

What will not fly under any circumstances is the status quo "ugly" scenario that basically kicks the can down the road on the COIN vs. outsource-it-to-killer-robot decision and allows enough troops to stay in the country to provide decent targets to the Taliban but not enough to really protect the population. This is the situation we are in now and it is untenable, even if some bloggers think we have the option of waiting.  My sources say we have to shift from "don't worry we're leaving" to "don't worry we're staying" or we will never build the kind of relationships we need to fight the Taliban.

Finally, I have an across the board "good scenario" in which unemployment drops back down the 2005-06 or mid to late 1990s levels. Under this scenario, Obama could win pretty handily even if he leaves Afghanistan to the Terminators and the Taliban and he will be almost unbeatable if he orders a successful "surge" style COIN strategy that stands up local militias to fight the Taliban all over the country.

I've made it clear that I believe Obama should support General McChrystal's recommendation and order a full on COIN strategy (based on what I heard at the COIN conference we need ~30 battalions - 30k troops) that both protects the population and begins embedding American forces with their Afghan counter-parts. But I'll admit there are plenty of risks, not the least of which is that the Afghan government could continue to be plagued with corruption and allegations of election fraud which would make it very difficult to counter the Taliban's argument that Karzi's regime is the corrupt tool of the imperialist west. It's also possible that Pakistan could continue to hedge between the U.S. and a Pashtun (read: Taliban) government in Afghanistan which would allow the ISI to continue to build their "farm team" for the coming war with India in Kashmir. Both AQ and the Taliban would love to see another Mumbai-style (or better yet 9/11) attack inside India that will be linked back to the ISI and force America to choose between the two south Asian states.

At home, the war appears to be loosing support but I say ignore the polls for the time being. The Republicans are basically in favor of increasing the troops in Afghanistan and that means that both Obama and whoever his opponent will be in 2012 will own this war (to see how this plays out in a national elections Google, Kerry, John: Voted for it before I voted against it). So unless Obama is worried that Cindy Sheehan and Micheal Moore are going to run against him, I don't think the negative polling on Afghanistan will have any real negative consequences if he decides to go with the high end of McChrystal's recommendation. In fact, Obama should be hoping for such a confrontation, because a public slap-down on Micheal Moore would probably boost Obama's approval among moderates and independents.   

In conclusion, I believe Obama has one path on the economy and two paths on Afghanistan if he is going to seek reelection in 2012. On the economy, the most important factor will be putting America back to work, but he can win without achieving "full employment" so long as the the unemployment numbers are trending down by 2012. In Afghanistan, Obama can go big and long or go home, but the status quo both in terms of troop strength and strategy is unacceptable and will cost Obama the presidency in 2012 no matter what happens to the economy.

*This depends on who he runs against. I'll deal with this in another post.

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