The Note: LBJ All the Way: Health care focus blurred by Afghanistan, foreign policy

By Gorman Gorman

Sep 21, 2009 8:21am

ABC News’ Rick Klein reports: Anyone know how to measure TV ratings inside the Senate Democratic caucus?

After a summer that ranged from Mr. Smith to Mr. Soprano, it’s time for Mr. Johnson.

As in LBJ — the dealmaker, working it senator by senator, since that’s the only audience that really matters right now on health care.

As in the president who inherits another president’s war, only to own it himself — and to see foreign policy eclipse domestic concerns at inconvenient times.

President Obama can try to play the heavy in New York — only to be ignored, at least so far. (Strike anyone as odd that a president who got his political start as an upstart is putting his thumb on so many primary scales?)

Speaking of political sway — as this big week on the international front begins, it turned out the president couldn’t control the news cycle through Monday morning after all.

Bob Woodward takes those honors: “The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan warns in an urgent, confidential assessment of the war that he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict ‘will likely result in failure,’ according to a copy of the 66-page document obtained by The Washington Post,” Woodward writes.

“Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal says emphatically: ‘Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible,’ ” he continues. “McChrystal makes clear that his call for more forces is predicated on the adoption of a strategy in which troops emphasize protecting Afghans rather than killing insurgents or controlling territory. Most starkly, he says: ‘[I]nadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced.’ ”

In perhaps the most telling moment of the Sunday rounds, the president described himself as “skeptical” in reviewing McChrystal’s assessment.

He told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on “This Week”: “I am now going to take all this information and we’re going to test whatever resources we have against our strategy, which is if by sending young men and women into harm’s way, we are defeating al Qaeda and — and that can be shown to a skeptical audience, namely me — somebody who is always asking hard questions about deploying troops, then we will do what’s required to keep the American people safe.”

This has been lingering in the background for months — but the president can’t keep this policy clash away indefinitely. It’s an issue that cuts to the foundation of Obama’s political appeal, as a president whose political rise was tied to his push to end one war moves inexorably toward escalating another one. And, of course, it’s an issue that deeply divides the Democratic Party — and leaves Obama in uneasy alignment with the GOP.

Maybe this decision isn’t automatic: “Mr. Obama’s comments suggested that the White House could be reassessing its strategy in Afghanistan, ahead of an expected request for more troops from Gen. Stanley McChrystal,” Elizabeth Williamson and Henry J. Pulizzi write in The Wall Street Journal.

“The Pentagon and the White House are awaiting a separate, more detailed request for additional troops and resources,” per the AP’s Anna Gearan. “In the interviews taped Friday at the White House, Obama mentioned concerns about the ‘mission creep’ that befell former President George W. Bush’s attempt to build and prop up a viable democratic government in a country unaccustomed to central rule and sensitive to foreign meddling.”

Speaking of tough calls: The president refused to equate a mandate to buy health insurance with a tax (dictionary or not): “For us to say that you’ve got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase,” he told Stephanopoulos on “This Week.”

(Politico cites Page 29 of the Baucus draft: “The consequence for not maintaining insurance would be an excise tax.”) 

“Mr. Obama, who opposed the insurance mandate during the 2008 presidential election, finds himself defending the measure against lawmakers who worry that the exemptions written into the requirement won’t relieve enough poor Americans of the cost,” the Washington Times’ Jennifer Haberkorn reports.

The Wall Street Journal editorial: “The President revealed a great deal about his philosophy of government and how he defines a tax increase. It turns out the President thinks a health-care tax is not a tax if he thinks the tax is for your own good.”

This week, it falls to members of the Senate Finance Committee to define the wisdom and existence of tax increases, with markups starting Tuesday and likely to stretch through much of the week.

“Senate Finance Committee members signaled an aggressive effort to reshape health-care legislation proposed by Chairman Max Baucus, drafting 564 amendments for consideration when the panel meets this week,” Bloomberg’s Laura Litvan reports. “Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican whose support has been sought by the White House, would create a nonprofit government entity to provide insurance if private coverage proved too expensive for some people.”

A positive sign in the quest for something that can be called “bipartisanship”: “It is budget neutral,” Snowe said of the Baucus bill, in an interview with John Harwood of The New York Times. “It does reduce the deficit.”

Window into the wooing: “I’ve gotten an impression that [the president] would, you know, probably do less than more,” Snowe added. “He’s always eliciting my views,” she said, “wondering, you know, what my concerns are.”

A new ad launching Monday targets Snowe, in Maine and in DC. “If you’re independent, Maine needs you to stand up right now and support the public insurance option,” says the ad, from Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Americans United for Change uses Bill O’Reilly to make the case for a public option, in a new Web video.

Another taxing question to consider: “Although cast as a tax on gold-plated insurance policies for the well-heeled, it has prompted anxiety among the middle class,” The New York Times’ Reed Abelson writes, on a provision in Sen. Max Baucus’ plan. “As it turns out, though, many smaller fish would get caught in Mr. Baucus’s tax net. The supposedly Cadillac insurance policies include ones that cover many of the nation’s firefighters and coal miners, older employees at small businesses — a whole gamut that runs from union shops to Main Street entrepreneurs.”

Getting out of Finance may not get you much of anything. There’s still the HELP bill to merge: “The merger negotiations — to be held in consultation with each committee and the White House — face even more obstacles, and Democrats are now grappling with how to craft a bill that can earn 60 votes. And Democrats concede they have yet to determine a clear path forward,” Roll Call’s David M. Drucker reports. “Democratic leaders expect President Barack Obama to play the most significant role in shaping the Senate health care bill — and that includes mediating between the Conference’s competing factions.”

On the media strategy: “Said one White House official, ‘There’s no evidence anywhere that the president is overexposed,’ ” ABC’s Jake Tapper reported on “Good Morning America” Monday. “This focus on international relations … will continue as the president heads up to New York today for the convening of the United Nations General Assembly.”

Also this week: The president hosts the G-20 in Pittsburgh.

“President Obama takes the world stage this week amid an array of international challenges that have bedeviled American presidents for decades, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the drive of ‘rogue’ nations toward nuclear power and uncertainty in the U.S. relationship with Russia,” Christi Parsons and Paul Richter report in the Los Angeles Times. “It’s enough to make his domestic agenda, be it healthcare or the economy, look simple.”

Monday in New York, at 10:30 am ET, in advance of the UN General Assembly: “Harrison Ford, a long-standing Conservation International board member, will be on hand at this major press event featuring Team Earth partners and President Jagdeo of Guyana on Monday, Sept 21 to garner support for forest protection ahead of the UN General Assembly and Copenhagen Climate Negotiations.”

But first, of course, comes t he Letterman visit Monday night, and an 11:30 am ET speech on the economy at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y. Gov. David Paterson, D-N.Y., is expected to be there for the speech, in case there’s anything the presidents wants to convey in person.

This message broke through — but hasn’t gotten through just yet: “Gov. Paterson pushed back yesterday against President Obama’s stunning attempt to shove him from New York’s political stage, insisting he won’t abandon his run for governor,” Kenneth Lovett reports in the New York Daily News.

“My plans have not changed,” said Paterson, D-N.Y.

The New York Times’ Danny Hakim and Nicholas Confessore: “Still, even as Mr. Paterson publicly vowed to continue, two prominent Democrats who had spoken to him over the weekend described him as mulling his options and open to the possibility of withdrawing. The two spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversations were intended to be confidential.”

Rep. Michael McMahon, D-N.Y.: “As any down-ballot candidate would be, I am very concerned about the top of the ticket, and I am happy that the White House is as concerned as I am.”

“No one has ordered him out of the race,” a source told ABC’s Jake Tapper, “nor does anyone have the authority to. He has to look at his situation and make the decision that he thinks is right for himself, the party and the state.”

With the president playing in governors’ races — the Democratic Governors Association is announcing that the president is headlining a DGA fundraising dinner Oct. 1. The event, at the St. Regis hotel in Washington, is expected to raise about $500,000. Per a DGA official: “This is the President’s first fundraiser for the DGA and is taking place on the eve of the biggest governors’ election cycle in a generation — with 37 races in 2010 that are followed by redistricting.”

On the other side: “It’s time,” former Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., tells the AP’s Frank Eltman. “It’s time for me to step up and show some leadership. . . . People want somebody who is willing to fundamentally rethink how state government operates.”

The “decency” request: “Obama seemed determined to make this point because the president used remarkably similar language during his interviews with Sunday morning show hosts, deploring the state of discourse, especially on cable news shows,” Lynn Sweet reports for Politics Daily. “Obama, who also sat down with Univision, snubbed the outlet where many of his loudest critics have found a perch — Fox News.”

“Nipping the hands that he was feeding, Mr. Obama suggested that the news media were fueling the furor,” The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley writes. “Mostly, however, Mr. Obama demonstrated that the news media are catnip to presidents.”

Plus, of course: “President Obama offered a humbling admission Sunday: His message is sometimes not ‘breaking through,’ ” Tribune Co.’s Mark Silva reports.

(Is there a better way to say he really doesn’t watch Fox? The president, on ACORN: “George, this is not the biggest issue facing the country. It’s not something I’m paying a lot of attention to.”

Is Obama beyond the race debate, in responding to his critics? “We can say that it’s not about the color of his skin, but we all know that has some part of it. I’ve not seen any other president treated like this,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., tells Newsweek’s Allison Samuels. “The conversation about race is not something Obama can really get involved in. He can’t get bogged down in that debate, nor should he. It’s not in his best interest.”

Any other oxygen out there? “The pitched battle over a national health care plan is inflicting collateral damage on other legislation in Congress, with some lawmakers and advocates arguing that it has sidetracked action on other urgent priorities,” Alan Wirzbicki reports for The Boston Globe. “The impact of the drawn-out debate has been clear: After Democrats passed a torrent of legislation during the spring on pay equality, credit card reforms, and economic stimulus measures, their output has slowed as the health care fight intensified.”

Big movement in Virginia (surprised?): “Dramatic shifts among independent female voters and Northern Virginians over the past month have propelled Democrat R. Creigh Deeds to within four points of Republican Robert F. McDonnell in the race for Virginia governor, according to a new Washington Post poll,” Anita Kumar and Jon Cohen report in The Washington Post.

The Clinton tapes: USA Today’s Susan Page sits down with historian Taylor Branch about his long sessions with President Bill Clinton. “Reluctant to discuss the affair with Monica Lewinsky that led to his impeachment, Clinton once lamented that it occurred when he felt sorry for himself and that he ‘just cracked’ under the pressure of personal and political setback,” Page writes.

“Then there was Clinton’s take on a heated, two-hour discussion he had with then-Vice President Gore just after Gore had lost the 2000 presidential election to Republican George W. Bush. The meeting started politely enough, Clinton recalled. Then Clinton, who felt underutilized during the 2000 campaign, told Gore he could have tilted the election to the Democratic side if he had been dispatched to stump in Arkansas or New Hampshire … Gore replied that Clinton’s scandalous shadow was a “drag” that had plagued Gore at every step of the campaign. The two ‘exploded’ at each other in mutual recrimination.”

And: “The former president has been on the phone with Branch for hours since he got page proofs of Branch’s new book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (Simon & Schuster), running ‘hot and cold’ about the account based on Branch’s recollections of their conversations. ‘I think it’s fair to say he’s nervous,’ Branch, 62, said last week.”

Wrapping up Values Voters — ABC’s Teddy Davis reports: “Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee beat his nearest rivals by more than a two-to-one margin in a 2012 presidential straw poll of 597 socially conservative activists who attended this weekend’s Values Voters Summit in Washington, D.C.”

“He is well oiled,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

Olympic diplomacy: “A senior administration official tells ABC News that a White House advance team has been dispatched to Copenhagen, Denmark, to prepare for the possibility that President Obama will personally make the pitch to the International Olympic Co mmittee for Chicago to host the 2016 games,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reports.

The Chicago Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet: “A White House source — who did not want to be named — told the Chicago Sun-Times on Saturday that Obama is dispatching an advance team to Denmark on Monday to nail down security and logistical arrangements so he ‘preserves the option’ to personally lobby IOC members before the Oct. 2 vote.”

The new season of “Dancing with the Stars” launches Monday — and Tom DeLay will wear . . . rhinestones? “Not a lot of ‘em, but some to sparkle in the lights,” DeLay tells Emily Miller, at Politics Daily.

The Kicker:

“I could listen to Papa Bear all day.” — Mitt Romney to the Values Voters Summit on Saturday after following former Education Secretary Bill Bennett on stage

“They are the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington.” — “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace, on the Obama White House staff.

For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day:

http://blogs.abcnews.com/thenote/

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