President Obama Faces Difficult Test in Afghan Speech

BY Terence Burlij  June 22, 2011 at 8:45 AM EDT

President Obama; Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

President Obama visits troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in December 2010. Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

It’s been a year-and-a-half since President Obama addressed the nation in prime time about the war effort in Afghanistan. When he announced his decision to send 30,000 surge troops into Afghanistan in December 2009, he also made clear he would start pulling them out in July 2011.

According to various reports, when the president takes to the East Room at 8 p.m. EDT to address the nation for 10 minutes, he plans to announce that 10,000 U.S. troops will come home before the beginning of 2012 and that all 30,000 surge troops will be home by the end of next year.

The political dance President Obama has to do Wednesday night is a tricky one. He has to tout the real successes in the war effort (killing of Osama bin Laden, diminishing al-Qaida’s strength, increasing Afghan military and police capacity to protect their own nation) while also arguing for why a major presence of U.S. troops is still needed for years to come.

The president is well aware of the nation’s war weariness and the slipping American support for the prolonged Afghanistan War, which is why he set the arbitrary July 2011 deadline for the initial drawdown 18 months ago.

His decision to draw down a little faster than what Gen. George Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates may have preferred is unlikely to give him enough political cover to protect him from the grumbling in his base, which will assuredly occur after Wednesday’s speech.

When you have Republican presidential contender Jon Huntsman praising Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., for “speaking sensibly” about the unaffordable cost of the war in these economic times, you begin to realize that the crosscurrents President Obama needs to navigate are pretty complex.

The president is, at most, playing for a political wash here. He won’t be able to have a triumphant “mission accomplished” moment like he did when he announced the death of bin Laden from the same spot last month. But if he can successfully sell the real progress that has been made, combined with the real national security threat that requires a slow and methodical withdrawal, he may be able to buy a bit more time with a country tired of war.

HUNTSMAN: ‘MORE AGGRESSIVE’ DRAWDOWN IS NEEDED

Jon Huntsman is no longer working for President Obama, but he’s still giving his former boss advice.

In advance of the president’s speech on Afghanistan, Huntsman made the morning show rounds Wednesday and said the United States should bring home more than 10,000 troops by the end of the year, the figure President Obama reportedly plans to announce.

“I think we can probably be a little more aggressive over the next year,” Huntsman told NBC’s “Today” show.

“Let’s get serious about what needs to be done on the ground, and that’s a significant counter-terror effort — not a counter-insurgency — but a counter-terror effort. And that will require intelligence gathering, it will require special forces capability and some training of local forces left behind,” Huntsman added.

The former Utah governor, who less than 24 hours ago launched his presidential campaign, said it was time to focus on “getting our own house in order,” a claim reminiscent of 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry’s charge against President Bush on the matter of U.S. involvement in Iraq.

“What we need now…is a healthy dose of nation-building here at home,” Huntsman said. “Our core is weak.”

Huntsman also took aim at President Obama’s handling of the economy. Unlike his GOP rival Mitt Romney, however, Huntsman refused to attach a letter grade to the president’s economic performance. (Romney gave the president an ‘F.’)

“I would say that there is a lot of work to be done, that over the last two to two and a-half years there are no signs of recovery, no signs of real health and I think that’s what the 2012 election cycle is going to be about,” Huntsman said.

“Listen, with 9.1 [percent] unemployment and $14.4 trillion in debt, c’mon, we have to begin focusing laser-like on getting numbers right, tackling spending and debt and just as importantly looking at the revenues side of the balance sheet, which will allow us to grow out of the hole we’re in. We’ve got to create jobs and expand the economy,” he added.

“Today” show host Ann Curry also tried to nail down Huntsman on raising taxes.

“I would say at a time when people need to grow and businesses need to get back on their feet and small business need to access capital this is not a time to raise taxes,” Huntsman said.

When pressed by Curry if raising taxes was off the table, Huntsman responded, “Off the table.”

T-PAW TV

Tim Pawlenty is hoping that being first on the air in Iowa will help him come in first when it really matters — at next year’s Republican caucuses.

The ad, “Results not Rhetoric,” released Wednesday, highlights Pawlenty’s conservative record as governor of Minnesota on issues such as reducing spending, confronting unions and appointing judges.

Pawlenty also boasts that he “passed health care reform the right way — no mandates, no takeover,” a not-so-subtle dig at his GOP competitor Mitt Romney and the health care law he signed as Massachusetts governor.

The Des Moines Register’s Jennifer Jacobs has all the details on Pawlenty’s spot:

“Pawlenty’s ad buy, which cost just under $50,000, is for Fox News programs in media markets in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Omaha, Ottumwa, Sioux City and Rochester, Minn. The ads run through July 3.”

PICKING SIDES

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., isn’t afraid to endorse a candidate in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, at least between the candidates who share his Mormon faith.

Sen. Reid threw some electoral politics flavor into his weekly press availability Tuesday when he said he prefers Huntsman over Romney — and he didn’t mince his words.

He said of Romney: “I think that the front-runner in the Republican stakes now…[is] a man who doesn’t know who he is. He was for gay marriage when he was governor, now he’s against. He was for abortion when he was governor. Now he’s against it….Health care. We modeled our bill to a large degree about what he did in Massachusetts, now he is trying to run from that. If someone doesn’t know who they are, they shouldn’t be President of the United States.”

Sen. Reid’s comments about Romney’s health care record in Massachusetts have already taken hold in the Republican primary fight. Pawlenty has already coined the term “Obamneycare” to link the president’s health care law to the state plan pushed by Romney in Massachusetts.

NewsHour reporter-producer Quinn Bowman contributed to this report.

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