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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Expecting More of Obama

Obama speaks on Afghanistan strategy
Big night last night. The president's announcement of an escalation of the Afghanistan war managed to make few people happy. On the right, this can be explained -- to a large extent, anyway -- by kneejerk partisanship. For them, Barack Obama can do no right. They don't like that the president set a 18-month timeline to begin withdrawal. But it's not hard to imagine that, had he gone with an Bush-like open-ended commitment, they would be criticizing him for not having an exit strategy.

With the media stuck in the 2008 presidential campaign, it should be less surprising that they keep running to John McCain for reactions to Obama's actions. They don't seem to realize that there is now no way that McCain/Palin can still win it (it's over, guys). But they keep doing it and I keep wondering why. Still, McCain gives what we can call the unofficial Republican response on ABC's Good Morning America today:

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the leading Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said while he agrees with the president's decision to up the number of troops, setting a timeline for withdrawal will only allow the Taliban to regroup and emerge stronger when U.S. forces leave Afghanistan.

"I support the president's decision to have a properly resourced counter insurgency strategy," McCain told "Good Morning America's" Robin Roberts today. "My only difference... is setting a date for return... Dates should be determined by success on the ground not by the calendar."

Remember that whole "commanders in the field" thing Bush used to pull? He'd basically argue that the president is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces and, as such, he couldn't do anything that the Pentagon didn't agree with. It didn't make any sense then and it doesn't now, but McCain seemed to buy it at the time. You wonder why he doesn't buy it now.

"I'm absolutely supportive of the timeline," says Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top "commander in the field," "The 18 months timeline, however, is not an absolute. It's not an 18 months and everybody leaves. The president has expressed on numerous occasions a long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan and that includes all manners of assistance."

So there's that. Other reactions have been as predictably reactionary.

It seems clear that if we want legitimate criticism of Obama's plan for Afghanistan, we'll have to point our eyes leftward.

MSNBC's FirstRead:

Democrat Russ Feingold (WI) today suggested there is a "significant" number of Senate Democrats with concerns about the administration's plan to increase troops in Afghanistan.


"I was just in a Democratic conference lunch, and I spoke out on this," he said on the Senate floor. "And I won't say who-said-what, but the number of people who joined me in expressing these very concerns was significant. Many members in my caucus, and I believe members of the Republican caucus -- perhaps from different philosophical prospective -- will come to the same conclusion that this is a mistake to move in the direction of this huge troop buildup."

It sounds like we won't have to look far on the left to get that criticism. A "significant" number can mean a lot of things, but it can't mean "a few." Feingold doesn't really play those word games anyway. Take it from someone who's lived in his state his entire career -- Russ Feingold is blunt. If he says the number is "significant," then it is. Or, at least, he believes it is.

But this leaves everyone on the left -- Obama, those who support his decision, and those who oppose it -- in a difficult position. For Obama, he's already made his concession to progressives -- he's included a timeline for withdrawal. Had this happened with Bush and Iraq, Democrats would've popped the champagne and declared victory. Party hats and whistles all around.

On the other hand, Democrats opposed to the increase have good reason to expect more from Obama than they did of Bush. So it's logical that they would demand more of him than they did of Bush. Where a timeline for withdrawal from Bush would've been acceptable to most Democrats, that acceptance would've been the result of what Bush himself once called "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

For Obama, there is no such soft bigotry. And this is were the problem stems for everyone. Progressives need to expect more, while Obama seems to believe he can't do more. Something has to give and it's hard to see where the give will be.


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