Obama’s Afghanistan speech: stuck in the middle with few

at 07:57 AM ET, 06/23/2011


President Obama announced Wednesday night that 33,000 troops would be taken out of Afghanistan over the next year and a half — a decision that was met with criticism from both sides.
President Obama laid down a foreign policy marker Wednesday night in a speech with an eye on domestic politics.

He announced the impending withdrawals of 33,000 troops from Afghanistan — 10,000 this year and 23,000 more next year — which would bring the forces in Afghanistan back to pre-surge levels.

Obama, pushed into an awkward position in which the general public is strongly against the war but much of the military brass reportedly favored a smaller drawdown, gave a speech that acknowledged the political realities of the decision and let Americans know exactly where he stands.

Firmly in the middle. And surprisingly lonely there.

“Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face,” Obama said. “Others would have America over-extend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.

“We must chart a more centered course.”

The first part of that statement is particularly noteworthy. Ever since the GOP presidential debate last week, analysts have been pointing to an emerging strain of isolationism in the new Republican Party. By actually using the word “isolation,” Obama is speaking directly to that debate and putting those increasingly isolationist Republicans to his left.

In the second half of the statement, Obama is addressing what has been the GOP’s more traditional approach to foreign policy – essentially the Bush Doctrine – that regards the United States as a world power capable of prosecuting wars against whoever is perceived as a threat. This puts the more “hawkish” Republicans to his right.

But even as Obama seeks the political middle ground on foreign policy, he’s getting tugged at from all sides.

The reactions from the political world after the speech were all over the map — but mostly out of sync with the White House’s decision.

Many Democrats lamente that the numbers were too small, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who said flatly that the drawdown of 10,000 troops this year is “not good enough.” Joining her, to differing degrees, were Demoratic Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Patty Murray (Wash.) and even the much more conservative Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.). Even statements that were intended to be supportive of Obama’s remarks, from Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.) and Mark Begich (Alaska), struck hesitant tones, noting the desire for complete exit.

Republicans, meanwhile, criticized Obama for not making clearer his long-term plans and justifying the war at a time when public opinion has turned against it. And presidential candidate Jon Huntsman joined the more isolationist Republicans in calling for bigger drawdowns.

“Now it is time we move to a focused counter-terror effort, which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the president discussed tonight,” Huntsman said.

The question for the president is whether such a middle ground position is the politically smart position.

Being in the middle is generally seen as the safest course, but opinions about war tend to the extremes, and right now, Obama has relatively few strong allies for the course has has chosen. (At least when he called for the “surge” of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2009, he had lots of crossover support from Republicans.)

As the GOP presidential field does its best to appeal to those extremes — whether on the isolationist side or the hawkish side — they may actually find a more significant base of support than the president has right now in the middle.

Former Iowa auditor endorses Pawlenty: Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign is set to announce a new Iowa co-chairman — former state auditor Richard Johnson.

Johnson served as auditor for more than 20 years before his retirement in 2003. Since then, he has been active in party politics, including serving as co-chairman for businessman Bob Vander Plaats’s primary against now-Gov. Terry Branstad (R) last year.

The backing comes just a day after Pawlenty announced another key endorsement in another key early state, getting the backing of conservative activist and former radio host Jennifer Horn in New Hampshire. He also announced the support of former Georgia state Senate President Eric Johnson and a top fundraiser for Gov. Nathan Deal (R) on Wednesday.

Palin says bus tour isn’t over: Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin says, contrary to what you might have heard, that her bus tour isn’t over.

Several news outlets reported that the tour, which is set to hit key primary states, is on hiatus, but Palin tweeted Wednesday that she has made no such determination.

“I did? Hmm, glad I have media to let me know my plans. They never cease to amaze MT ‘@foxheadlines Palin Ends Bus Tour http://fxn.ws/ip0mgb,’”she tweeted.

Interestingly, the report Palin shot down is from Fox News, where she is a paid contributor.

One trip Palin is canceling? Her planned trip to war-torn Sudan.

More polling shows Ryan plan unpopular: A new Bloomberg poll shows what others have — that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan for Medicare is unpopular.

According to the poll, 57 percent of Americans said they would be worse off under the plan, which would turn Medicare into a voucher program. Just 34 percent said they would be better off.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed similar numbers, with 32 percent saying they supported the changes and 49 percent opposed.

The polling underscores the kind of momentum Democrats have gotten on this issue and shows that it’s unlikely to cease anytime soon.

Fixbits:

Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) slow start in Iowa.

Former senator Rick Santorum continues to play offense, going after Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman.

More bad economic polling for Obama.

A new potential GOP challenger to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) emerges: state House Speaker Jase Bolger.

Huntsman’s family has given lots of money to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Rep. Dan Lungren’s (R) repeat challenger, Dr. Ami Bera (D), releases a web video hitting Lungren on Medicare.

A GOP redistricting plan that would draw together Democratic Reps. Sandy Levin and Gary Peters has passed in the Michigan state House.

Must-reads:

Staff quit because ‘I’m different,’ Gingrich says” — David Beasley, Reuters

Huntsman’s path” — Ryan Lizza, New Yorker

Some of TimPawlenty’s aides working for little or no pay, sources say” — Amy Gardner, The Washington Post

Illinois congressman Johnson may be thwarted in bid to call all his constituents” — David A. Fahrenthold, The Washington Post

 
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