A look back at President Obama's week with the Afghanistan war and jobs summit

The past week provided insights into both ambitions and risks.
The past week provided insights into both ambitions and risks. (Susan Walsh/associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Seven days cannot encapsulate the whole of a presidency, but the past week was a vivid illustration of the arc of President Obama's first year in office.

The main events of the week for the White House -- a speech on the Afghanistan war and a jobs summit -- provided fresh insights into the limits to Obama's ambitions and the scale of the risks he has taken on for himself and his party.

Begin with the president's ambitions. At the opening of his presidency, there was hardly a problem that Obama wasn't prepared to confront aggressively. The economy? Bailouts for banks and automakers, and a huge stimulus package to short-circuit the recession. Iraq? Set a date for withdrawing promptly. Health care? Go for it immediately, and with primary colors, not pastels. Energy and climate change? Ditto. Afghanistan? Send the brigades long advocated as a candidate.

Some of these were decisions of necessity (the economy). Others reflected campaign promises he could not afford to break (Iraq). Still others represented promises that might have been deferred but were not (health care).

Taken together, they signaled the enormous ambitions that came to define Obama's conception of his presidency. They also helped to create an increasingly contentious political climate in reaction to that agenda.

Fast-forward to today. Obama's announcement that he is sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan represents a major military escalation of that conflict. But it is also an escalation in search of a more limited mission than the one he seemed to have endorsed only months earlier.

To be fair to Obama, he has long believed the key to Afghanistan was a combination of additional resources and scaled-back ambitions. Even as a candidate who said Afghanistan was the central front in the anti-terrorism effort, Obama resisted suggesting that the United States had the capacity to create a Jeffersonian democracy there and clearly did not believe that was possible. Unlike President George W. Bush with Iraq, Obama was thinking then about defining his goals in ways to avoid an open-ended commitment.

The deliberations over the proposal by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal for 40,000 more troops went on so long in part because Obama was reluctant to sign on to a mission that could last a decade, result in untold casualties, consume a trillion dollars in taxpayers' money and become a nation-building exercise in a country with no history of wanting to become such a society.

Obama might have decided to send more troops to Afghanistan than he ever thought would be necessary when he was a candidate, but he was still trying to constrain the scope of the investment and tamp down on Bush-era rhetoric of victory and spreading democracy. Whether he can avoid a protracted engagement in Afghanistan remains to be seen, but Obama has tried to signal to the nation, the Afghan government and the Pentagon that he does not intend to be there indefinitely.

A different reality confronts Obama on the economic front. Friday's jobs report was the best in the past two years, with the unemployment rate dropping unexpectedly from 10.2 percent to 10 percent. It was the latest sign that the stimulus package has had a positive effect. But as Christina Romer, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, put it, "The unemployment rate remains unacceptably high."

Obama's jobs summit on Thursday and his road trip to Allentown, Pa., on Friday -- planned before anyone knew what the jobless report would say -- were meant to show his concern to voters who might be angry that Wall Street has been given billions as Main Street struggles. Obama was saying to the country what President George H.W. Bush once said during the recession that lingered into his 1992 reelection campaign: "Message: I care."

Given the political sensitivity, Obama displayed a sense of urgency at the White House gathering about dealing with joblessness. "I am not interested in taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to creating jobs," he said. But he was forced to acknowledge he can do only so much. "We don't have enough public dollars," he said, "to fill the hole of private dollars that was created as a consequence of the crisis.

That would be true with any economic downturn the size of the one that hit last year. But the limits of Obama's ambition on this front are the result of fiscal realities in part of his own making. The amount of money he has spent on economic recovery and that he wants to spend on health care have produced record projections of red ink. To do more, he must scrounge for money and check his appetite.

His advisers say he will probably tap some of the money remaining in the Troubled Assets Relief Program for more job-creating initiatives. That is a sign that dealing with the deficit will continue to take a back seat to the human and political problem of unemployment. But there are limits. The fiscal squeeze has grown acute during his presidency. That will rule decisions for the remainder of his time in office. Passage of a health-care bill will virtually guarantee no room for big initiatives later.

Obama has tied his party and his presidency to policies that could make 2010 extremely difficult for the Democrats, and it's clear that political considerations influenced the Afghanistan debate inside the administration and the renewed focus on jobs.

He sought a middle course on Afghanistan designed to give people on both sides of the debate something to hang onto, even if they were not fully satisfied with it in its entirety. On the economy, the White House was responding to the clamor from congressional Democrats, who worry about heading into the 2010 midterm elections with the unemployment rate still in double digits.

The year began with a mountain of problems facing the president. He attacked them with an expansive sense of the possible. Many of those problems remain to be solved. But if the past week is a guide, Obama is approaching them with a greater appreciation for how far his ambitions can take him and the political costs of trying to do so.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company