President Barack Obama's decision to replace his commanding general in Afghanistan this week comes at a pivotal point in terms of domestic support for the war. For weeks now there has been growing concern in Congress over the war effort in Afghanistan, and signs that the American public may be growing weary of the fighting.
It was a decisive moment for a president who, according to public opinion polls, is not always seen as a decisive leader.
President Obama's decision to dismiss General Stanley McChrystal and replace him with General David Petraeus was clearly one of his most important leadership tests to date. "Our nation is at war. We face a very tough fight in Afghanistan. But Americans don't flinch in the face of difficult truths or difficult tasks. We persist and we persevere," he said.
The president accepted McChrystal's resignation after the general was quoted in Rolling Stone magazine disparaging Mr. Obama and other members of his administration.
Some prominent Republicans were quick to support the president on his decision, including Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who also serves in the U.S. Air Force reserves. "The president of the United States, our commander in chief, had no other choice, in my view. I have been a military officer most of my adult life and there are lines you can't cross. Those lines were crossed," he said.
In announcing the change, President Obama said McChrystal's comments undermined a long-standing principle of American democracy-civilian control over the military.
Richard Wolffe is a political commentator for MSNBC who wrote a book about Mr. Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. "That was an extremely important moment for America and the world, that in this country, very clearly, it is about civilian leadership. So it is an important presidential moment. This was a presidential moment when he stamped his authority and said he's the boss," he said.
Political experts say the president may have made the best of a difficult situation when he chose General David Petraeus to succeed McChrystal in Afghanistan. Congressional Republicans liked McChrystal but they hold even more regard for Petraeus who they see as the hero of the military surge in Iraq. In fact, some Republican political strategists have suggested he would make an excellent presidential candidate in 2012, something Petraeus has so far shown no interest in.
The Petraeus appointment could spark a badly needed boost in domestic support for the war in Afghanistan, which has been flagging somewhat. Public support for the war in Afghanistan has always been higher than for the conflict in Iraq. But the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll found that only 44 percent of those surveyed believe the Afghan war is worth fighting, the lowest figure on that question in that poll in the past three years.
"And the question is whether they will continue to keep supporting it for the time period it needs. It probably needs five or ten years, and most people who really know about this are in that time frame. And then there is no guarantee of real success, and so the question is, even if it is real successful, is it worth the cost and effort and money and so forth? And I think a lot of that previous support is turning to, if not opposition, at least to a sort of wariness and discontent," he said.
Mueller says the president probably helped his own political standing by choosing Petraeus to replace McChrystal. But he also says it could complicate the administration's goal of wanting to begin to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, depending on conditions on the ground, by July of next year.
"Which also could cause problems for Obama down the line in the sense that Petraeus may have a lot more credibility than McChrystal did when he is dealing with Congress and when he is dealing with the American people. So if he wants to change policy against the wishes of the commander on the ground it is going to be more difficult with Petraeus there than McChrystal," he said.
The Obama administration wants to begin to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by July of 2011. The key domestic political questions between now and then, of course, are what kind of success will the NATO allies have in securing Afghanistan, and will the American public continue to show patience in supporting a conflict that is producing higher casualties and growing doubts about the level of success.
Clearly the situation in Afghanistan will figure in U.S. domestic politics in the run-up to the next presidential election in 2012.
"Obviously, strategy is supposed to be shaped by policy, and policy, as we know, is always shaped by politics. And politics in the U.S. are frequently shaped by electoral considerations. So I suspect the nuts-and-bolts answer to that is, sometime after the fall election, before the next presidential election, is when you begin to say, we've given it enough time," said Larry Goodson, a professor at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania.
Even before the McChrystal firing, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had President Obama's approval rating down to 45 percent, the lowest of his presidency in that poll. Mr. Obama's Democratic Party expects to lose seats in this year's midterm congressional elections, and in two years time the president faces his own battle for re-election.
Political experts say the president can ill-afford a major foreign policy setback in Afghanistan as he struggles to revive the national economy and cope with a major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"You know the president has a couple more years before he has to really worry about his own election, his own re-election. But these numbers show that this is still very difficult territory for him," said analyst Richard Wolffe on VOA's Encounter program.
As challenging as the situation in Afghanistan is for the president, experts say the state of the national economy, more than any other issue, will determine both this year's congressional elections and Mr. Obama's chances for re-election in 2012.