In announcing new Afghan strategy, Obama faces a crowded calendar

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2009; 1:46 PM

As White House observers attempt to read the tea leaves about the timing of President Obama's Afghanistan announcement, one thing becomes clear: There's not much time left.

For more than a month, Obama has been meeting with his war council to determine a new strategy in Afghanistan and whether to send additional troops, as requested by his top general there. He said in interviews Wednesday that he would reveal his decision within the next several weeks.

The president has just 20 weekdays left -- not counting Thanksgiving break -- before he leaves for his Christmas-holiday vacation in Hawaii. But the presidential schedule for the rest of November and December is already filling up with other priorities, some of which could create some awkwardness if they happen too close to news of a beefed-up war effort.

Take the week of Dec. 7, a likely candidate for a rollout of the Afghanistan strategy.

That Thursday, Obama travels to Oslo to accept his Nobel Peace Prize, and it seems unlikely that his communications advisers would want the echoes of a new Afghan policy coloring that event. (There is also speculation that Obama may use the trip to Norway to stop, on the way back, in Copenhagen at the U.N. climate change summit. That Dec. 11 event would eliminate another potential day for his war announcement.)

And, of course, Dec. 7 is the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor -- requiring another political calculation by his White House team.

Obama's national security advisers have told reporters categorically that the president will not make his decision public during the week that includes Thanksgiving. That eliminates three more days, Nov. 23-25.

One real possibility would be the following week. He could make a speech on Monday, Nov. 30, and his advisers could spend the next couple of days responding and explaining.

But the end of that week is out: Obama has already announced that he will hold a jobs summit at the White House on Dec. 3, and will travel to Allentown, Pa., on Dec. 4 to talk about jobs and the economy.

If Obama needs more time to decide, he could wait until the week of Dec. 14, which at this point appears wide open on his schedule.

There are other considerations, though. The health care debate is sure to be raging in the Senate by mid-December, as lawmakers race to meet the president's mandate to send him a bill by the end of the year.

That deadline is self-imposed, and could easily slip in much the same way that the president's earlier, get-it-done-by-August deadline came and went without much fuss.

Other priorities are not so flexible. By law, the president must decide whether to extend the unpopular bank bailout program TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, by Dec. 31. That wouldn't necessarily require a major speech, but it will almost certainly capture headlines when he acts, since Republicans and Democrats are already urging him to let the program expire.

Along with the timing of the Afghanistan announcement, it is also not yet clear exactly how the White House plans to roll out the news.

The options under consideration have been an Oval Office address to the nation, a speech in front of an audience, or a prime-time press conference. Any of those would almost certainly be paired with news conferences by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other top military officials. And Obama's advisers are sure to fan out to television and Sunday talk shows.

One key question is whether the decision will leak out before any of that happens. The process thus far has been dominated by leaks, the first of which came when The Washington Post's Bob Woodward acquired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's report on the war effort in September.

This week, Obama decried the leaks, calling them firing offenses.

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