The Obama White House has found itself off message and on the defensive. The source of this week’s headache is the 92,000 pages of classified documents about the war in Afghanistan released by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. Some of the documents show US forces covered up Afghan civilian deaths and Pakistani security forces aided the Taliban. 

The administration swiftly condemned the leaking of classified documents.  Their main defence has been that the allegations included in the documents, which range from January 2004 to December 2009 are old and paint an unfinished picture of the war effort. Officials from the White House to the State Department to the Pentagon have reiterated since the WikiLeaks story broke on Sunday that the allegations are old news. President Barack Obama finally addressed the leaks on Tuesday, saying, “the fact is these documents don’t reveal any issues that haven’t already informed our public debate on Afghanistan indeed, they point to the same challenges that led me to conduct an extensive review of our policy last fall.”   

While Obama has framed the debate in terms of an existential threat, he must be well aware of the public dislike of the war. A recent CBS News poll found 62 per cent Americans believe the war in Afghanistan is going badly.  And 54 per cent want a timetable for withdrawing troops.   

Part of the strategy announced last December included a timetable of July 2011 for troops to begin withdrawing. The next policy review is scheduled for December, just after the Midterm Elections. Officials will look at whether the 30,000 additional troops have been effective at fighting a counterinsurgency war and training the Afghan security forces.   

But with the mounting troop death toll and the constant drip of bad or embarrassing news out of Afghanistan, the Obama team is having to gear up to sell yet another unpopular policy to his political base. 

A sign that Democrats are increasingly unwilling to walk lockstep with the administration came from the US Congress on Tuesday. The House of Representatives approved $33bn for the war. But the measure’s passage belies Congressional support for the war. Three times as many Democrats voted “no” than they did for funding last year. They didn’t do it because they thought they could defeat the measure. They did it to send a message to their constituents and to the White House that they’ve had enough. 

Congress goes on its annual August vacation in the coming days. It’s time for members to reconnect with voters and tout their accomplishments. President Obama is also gearing up to do his part as leader of the party to help Democrats get elected in November. He’s headlining four fundraisers in three days next week to raise money for the Party. And while the money he raises is surely welcome to Democrats, continued focus on the unpopular war may not be.