Obama's Partisan Balancing Act on Afghanistan

The president must appeal to Republicans, Democrats, and centrists all at the same time.

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President Obama is floating amid three parallel universes.

In the Republican universe, nearly all his policies have been wrong, even dangerous. His economic stimulus plan has been wasteful and ineffective. His bailouts of the banks and the auto companies have been simplistic and unfair to everyday Americans. His government activism has set America on a path to socialism or worse. His profligate spending has run up vast and dangerous deficits as far as the eye can see. His "dithering" over Afghanistan shows that he is vacillating and weak, emboldening America's enemies. [Read an exclusive interview with Obama.]

In the Democratic universe, Obama is a godsend. He is rapidly bringing needed change to Washington. His stimulus plan and other actions saved the economy from another depression. His bailouts have stopped a cataclysmic economic slide for crucial industries. His activism is righting past wrongs and giving the downtrodden and the middle class a lift after years when the rich held sway in Washington. His spending policies, while leading to oceans of red ink, are well-meaning and will eventually deliver dramatic results. His ongoing re-evaluation of U.S. policy in Afghanistan is sensible and recognizes that the fast-changing situation there requires new thinking.

As the nation marks the first anniversary of Obama's election on November 4, the gap between these two universes is widening with little or no chance of accommodation. But there is another factor—the universe of the centrists. These are the independent and loosely aligned voters who determine so much of American politics and swing from one party to the other. Last year, they moved heavily to Obama and the Democrats, hoping that this might change Washington and end the polarization there. Since then, the independents have gone sour. They aren't impressed with the GOP, but they also are increasingly disappointed with Obama and the Democrats. They don't think Obama's charisma and goodwill have delivered enough positive results, especially in strengthening the economy, creating jobs, and ending the mortgage crisis. [See photos of Obama behind the scenes.]

An even bigger time bomb for the centrists, and the whole country, is the war in Afghanistan. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and other critics argue that Obama should have immediately approved the request of his senior military commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for 40,000 more troops. In a speech October 21, Cheney said Obama was "dithering" and argued that such signs of indecision "hurt our allies and embolden our adversaries." In response, Obama told an audience of military personnel and their families in Jacksonville, Fla., "I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way. I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary. And if it is necessary, we will back you up to the hilt." White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs adds, "Having watched him at these [war cabinet] meetings, I think the American people would be proud at the way this process is going forward, that the president is evaluating where we are and how we move forward and is not looking at this through a political lens or any other lens but just the way that this works best for America."

This is all well and good, but everything will depend not on the process but on the decision Obama makes. No matter what he does, he will anger one of the partisan universes. If he escalates, the antiwar left will go ballistic. If he takes a less aggressive course, the right will take umbrage. The centrist universe could go either way, and much will depend on Obama's persuasive powers.

There is another peril: An increasing Afghan buildup could jeopardize Obama at home. "If Obama wants to put across significant domestic legislation, he needs to put it across before he escalates the war," says historian Robert Dallek, who has studied Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. All had trouble pushing their domestic programs because they diverted so much attention, energy, and money to waging military conflicts, deepening their adversaries' bitterness. Dallek says Afghanistan is starting to give off "the odor of Vietnam—being bogged down in a conflict you can't control."