By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 12, 2009
War and tragedy are putting President Obama through the most wrenching period of his young administration. Visibly thinner, admittedly skipping meals, he is learning every day the challenges of a wartime presidency. Health-care reform, climate-change legislation, the broken economy -- all are cerebral exercises compared with the grim responsibility of being the commander in chief.
Two weeks ago, Obama flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for a surprise middle-of-the-night salute to the fallen as their bodies were unloaded from a military transport plane. He met with grieving families.
Then, last week, a gunman went on a rampage at Fort Hood, and Obama made his first trip as president to visit wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Tuesday he flew to Texas to speak at the memorial service. More families. More hurt soldiers. More grief.
Wednesday the president laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and walked the grounds at Arlington National Cemetery, talking to families who were there to visit loved ones who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There are many honors and responsibilities that come with this job. But none is more profound than serving as commander in chief," Obama said in a speech in the cemetery's auditorium. He then mentioned the title of commander in chief a second time, and a third ("As long as I am commander in chief . . .").
Then he returned to the White House, to the Situation Room, for another Afghanistan war council, another session to contemplate sending more young men and women to war.
"It looks to me from the outside that the reality of being a wartime president is beginning to sink in," said Eliot Cohen, a former Bush official and a military historian at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
"From mid-September on, there's been something of an effort by the White House to relaunch President Obama as commander in chief," said Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke who worked on the National Security Council in the Clinton and Bush administrations. He said new presidents often struggle with this part of their job.
"It really involves the whole person, not just the mind," Feaver said. "It's a very emotional role. Emotional in a positive sense. You have to order men and women to risk their lives. That requires a moral courage, an emotional stability. It's very different from a policy wonk job."
Obama has often been described as possessing the political magic of John F. Kennedy, but his tenure so far has similarities to that of Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson: an ambitious domestic agenda built around a more vigorous federal government, paired with an increasingly thorny overseas war. Making things even more complicated, if Obama sends significantly more troops to Afghanistan, the sworn political enemies of his domestic policies could become his critical allies as he tries to sell his war plans to a skeptical nation.
"With this decision, he's really going to own this war, and he's going to be sending young men and women to their deaths. And when that realization sets in, it's a very grim thing. He may have known it intellectually before, but what I think is happening is he's learning it viscerally," Cohen said.No military résumé
As Obama noted in his campaign, he grew up listening to his grandfather talk about fighting in Europe in World War II, but he never served in the military. He is of a generation whose college kids generally didn't go off to war.
Critics of the president have said he doesn't understand the language of warriors and too often speaks of military sacrifice rather than military victory. But Obama has tried to head off that kind of criticism by stocking his administration with retired military brass. His national security adviser is a retired general; so are his secretary of veterans affairs and his ambassador to Afghanistan. His intelligence chief is a retired admiral.
Obama has had multiple chances in recent days to polish the kind of rhetoric that goes with being a wartime leader. His remarks at Fort Hood on Tuesday were filled with references to courage, valor, fighting. He disagreed that the Greatest Generation has come and gone: "We need not look to the past for greatness, because it is before our very eyes."
He opposed the Iraq war early and consistently and campaigned on a promise to end it. He also vowed to put new effort into the war in Afghanistan, the training ground of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists. This spring, his administration conducted a review of Afghanistan policy and announced that 21,000 additional troops would be sent to that war zone. The president showed little sign that the decision weighed on his mind or provoked much internal White House debate.
Then Afghanistan degenerated. A national election was shot through with fraud. Casualties spiked. Body bags began arriving home by the dozen.A new direction
Now Obama is crafting a new strategy, weighing four different options, according to the White House press secretary. Administration leaks point to a considerable increase in the number of troops as part of a broader strategic change.
"He's stepping up to the problem, and he's exercising a degree of skepticism and analytical depth that his predecessor didn't appear to engage in," said Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Wrong, Cohen said: Obama's dithering.
"I don't yet have the sense that he's willing to commit that much of his political energy to this, and yet if he doesn't, I do think there's a serious risk of failure," Cohen said.
No decision by Obama will escape condemnation from those who think they know a better way. Hawks will call him a compromiser with no stomach for the fight; doves will say that, having campaigned against one war, he is escalating another.
But even those who disagree with the president's policies will recognize him as a man who thinks through his decisions, reads his briefing papers and studies the lessons of history. Wednesday, before he left Arlington, Obama paused to read the most powerful texts imaginable, the names on grave markers. He stopped at the grave of Ross McGinnis, a Medal of Honor recipient. Born in Pennsylvania, McGinnis, 19, wound up in Iraq as a machine gunner, 1st Platoon, C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment. An insurgent threw a hand grenade into his Humvee. He threw his body on it, absorbing the explosion. His four platoon mates survived.
Obama bent over McGinnis's grave, but the traveling press pool could not tell what the president was doing, much less what he was thinking.
Staff writer Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.