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Feeling the weight of war

From Fort Hood to Afghanistan, trying times for the commander in chief

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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.

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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.


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