The Aftermath: A New Reality for Obama

Team Obama's dreams grounded by tough slog ahead

By Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen
|  Thursday, Dec 3, 2009  |  Updated 4:45 AM EDT
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Obama's Afghan Aftermath: Now the Tough Slog

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President Obama has a lot of tough slogging ahead.

President Barack Obama and his aides have seen their political mortality.

Confronting the complexities and dangers of the Afghan escalation has ushered in a new, more grounded reality for a White House that has gotten far on Obama’s charm, congressional might and a campaign cockiness aides carried into the West Wing.

That’s over. White House officials now are bracing for brutal months ahead, filled with second-guessing on the war plan and mounting casualties, along with deepening unemployment and a legislative slog on financial reform and climate change.

Through it all, the nation has seen the president confront a challenge that has split his party, divided him from his most loyal followers and left him no truly good choices. Here’s what we’ve learned from watching Obama and his team craft the policy and the speech that deepened U.S. involvement in Afghanistan:

They are back to reality: The war debate, which played out during a bumpy stretch for this White House, has brought many aides back to earth. Nine meetings on the complexities and extreme dangers of this war will do that. Gone are the predictions of swift, transformational change, at least for energy and financial regulations. The political front is no better. They fully expect to lose seats in the House and probably in the Senate and can only hope for a political surge as they head into Obama's reelection.

"The biggest worry is that this becomes a political football," a senior administration official said. "The concern is that you end up having to deal with constant attacks from the right and the left on this."

He’s not as radical as Cheney thinks: Dick Cheney told POLITICO on the eve of the speech Obama is "far more radical" than the former vice president once thought. But that can only be true if Cheney considers himself a radical.

Obama, in a clear break with liberal antiwar wing and legacy of his own party, endorsed a Bush-Cheney style surge that will put a total of 100,000 men and women in a hot war — half of whom went on Obama's watch. He is unquestionably a "war president" who will forever own a six-figure military campaign and occupation.

Radical would have been an immediate pull-out, which Obama made clear Tuesday night was never on the table. That's why many of Cheney's supporters are applauding Obama - even if the former vice president still thinks the commander in chief is weak.

He leaned on Gates: While the city was obsessed with the silly, self-promotional couple that crashed the state dinner, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was emerging from war council meetings more powerful than ever. It didn't leak, but the total Obama announced — 30,000 — was the final number that Secretary Gates took to President Obama, in mid-October. It's a reminder that Gates, Obama's only high-level holdover from President George W. Bush, is the most influential member of the Cabinet, bar none.

Aides say his argument to the president about the number was dispositive. This gives the president what aides consider an airtight alibi against claims that 30,000 is a triangulated, political number, since it's not based on any specific brigade configuration. It’s also worth noting that the “Team of Rivals” concept for national security seemed to work. After a rocky start of Biden vs. McChrystal, disagreements are invisible today. 

He’s not afraid of the big, bad left: Make no mistake, this war plan is a big defeat for the anti-war left. The president largely ignored Michael Moore, Keith Olbermann and the scores of lawmakers who wanted fewer troops and a quicker exit.

And White House officials tell us there is no way they are slapping a war tax on people to pay for this, as some liberal Democrats want. Obama expects a tough fight on the Hill for funding, though he anticipates Republicans and moderate Democrats will come through in the end.

One thing to keep in mind: War opponents always gripe about funding but the president almost always prevails. The left will huff and puff but the White House doesn't think they will blow down funding for this - or protest by demanding more in the health care fight.

"We just find it hard to believe that people on the left would be willing to sacrifice reforming health care and providing affordable health insurance to 30-some-million Americans as a protest over this," another administration official told us.

He is proudly pro-nuance: Obama's critics often belittle him for trying to please everyone by striking a nuanced middle ground. He definitely is exposed to that charge here: He called for a massive escalation next year - and then called for massive de-escalation for 12 months later.

The pundits pounded him on this point last night and in the morning papers. Just like it’s doing on health care and financial regulation, the White House is making clear they are happy to live in this policy world of nuance.

"Whenever you have a position that is nuanced and goes down the middle -- and this happens to us a lot -- the left will say, 'Too much like Bush.' And the right will say, 'Not good enough,' the official said. "So you're going to get hammered from both sides, and the loudest voices are the ones that end up on TV. And there's always a danger of: Pleases no one," a top official said.

He won’t always make the pundits swoon: The post-speech reaction, particularly on cable, was heavily negative. "Where's the hope?" asked MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who chided Obama on setting an benchmark for starting withdrawal. "If I were with the Taliban right now, I'd put a little Post-it up on that month in 2011, and say: 'This is when we do OUR surge.'"

John Dickerson of Slate was similarly downbeat: "Obama's tone was methodical and emotionless. He often sounded like a reluctant warrior." CBS's Bob Schieffer, host of "Face the Nation," said he simply didn't understand the logic of escalating a war and then setting an end-date. "How you can set a deadline on what you're going to do. This is not a football game, where the time runs out. To win this war, you have to defeat the enemy."

The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman disagreed with the policy, even after being treated to an on-the-record lunch at the White House that Obama help with some reporters and columnists. "I can't agree with President Obama's decision to escalate in Afghanistan," Friedman said in the morning-after paper. It isn't often Obama gets roundly criticized for playing to a core strength -- giving a big speech at a big moment – and he had to know a lot of his usual fans wouldn’t applaud.

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