Baggage Handling: Obama leaves behind unfinished business as he leaves for Asia

By Gorman Gorman

Nov 12, 2009 8:20am

ABC News’ Rick Klein reports: What makes this trip different from all other trips?

There's the time zones … the temperature swings … the nagging sense that this trip doesn't come with a handy checklist of administration deliverables …

Mostly, though, this one stands out because President Obama's most important work is staying behind while he's in Asia over the next week.

The health care bill still needs his work — and some healing inside the Democratic Party that may be beyond his abilities.

Plus, the odd mix of public signals and private discussions continues on Afghanistan — with the consumption of more time raising the stakes of the president's decision, and giving the stakeholders more time to claim their ground.

The White House is signaling deep engagement and deliberation in what's going to be a tough sell, at home and abroad. In that vein, this might be a little going-away present:

"President Barack Obama won't accept any of the Afghanistan war options before him without changes, a senior administration official said, as concerns soar over the ability of the Afghan government to secure its own country one day," the AP's Ben Feller and Anne Gearan report.

"In Wednesday's pivotal war council meeting, Obama wasn't satisfied with any of the Afghanistan war options presented by his national security team, one official said. The president instead pushed for revisions to clarify how and when U.S. troops would turn over responsibility to the Afghan government. In turn, that could change the dynamic of both how many additional troops are sent to Afghanistan and what the timeline would be for their presence in the war zone."

Yes, he still has questions. And another voice may have new answers:

"The United States ambassador to Afghanistan, who once served as the top American military commander there, has expressed in writing his reservations about deploying additional troops to the country, three senior American officials said Wednesday," Elisabeth Bumiller and Mark Landler report in The New York Times.

"The position of the ambassador, Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general, puts him in stark opposition to the current American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who has asked for 40,000 more troops," they write. (Are we getting a glimpse at a new point person for a new strategy — albeit one who's been there before?)

The Los Angeles Times' Paul Richter: "Several senior civilian officials, including Vice President Joe Biden and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, have privately expressed reservations about a further troop buildup. But few senior military officials have lined up among the doubters, giving Eikenberry's reported statement special impact."

"Eikenberry's last-minute interventions have highlighted the nagging undercurrent of the policy discussion: the U.S. dependence on a partnership with a Karzai government whose incompetence and corruption is a universal concern within the administration," The Washington Post's Greg Jaffe, Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung report.

Get the message yet that the president wants a way out? "Obama asked his advisers how long it would take to implement the various options and insisted that an enhanced mission be conducted in the swiftest way possible, according to an administration official," Ken Bazinet reports in the New York Daily News.

Well-timed advice: "You take your time and you figure it out. You're the commander-in-chief and this is what you were elected for," Colin Powell told Roland Martin on the Tom Joyner Morning Show.

Another big factor — since this all doesn't work without trust: "President Barack Obama expressed fresh doubts about the credibility of Afghanistan's government in high-level discussions Wednesday over what troops to send there," Peter Spiegel reports in The Wall Street Journal. "According to officials familiar with the effort, James Jones, the White House national security adviser, is expected to visit Pakistan this week to discuss U.S. deliberations over troop levels. Mr. Eikenberry's concerns come late in the process, and it is unclear how they will ultimately affect Mr. Obama's decision making."

Skepticism runs both ways: "The Obama administration plans to send hundreds more American advisers as part of a so-called civilian surge, increasingly seen in Washington as perhaps as important as the pending decision about whether to send more troops," The Boston Globe's Farah Stockman reports. "But Afghan officials have begun to push back, complaining the Americans are often overpaid, underqualified, and unfamiliar with the culture of the country. Even the best, most qualified advisers can sow mistrust because they answer to the US government or firms rather than to Afghan officials."

Critical for the domestic political landscape: "Republican leaders are gearing up to [criticize] Obama's eventual decision on the way forward in Afghanistan even if it falls modestly short of sending an additional 40,000 troops, a senior GOP aide says," per Greg Sargent, at The Plum Line blog. "But there's an interesting caveat, one that underscores the political challenges the GOP will face as they respond to Obama's decision: What if he decides to send less than 40,000 troops, but the decision is endorsed by the commanding officer, General Stanley McChrystal?"

Setting the tone: "This is like a slow-motion train wreck, watching this decision-making process, and it is really is having a debilitating effect, I think, on troop morale in Afghanistan," former UN Ambassador John Bolton told Fox News' Greta Van Susteren.

Toll of war: "War and tragedy are putting President Obama through the most wrenching period of his young administration," Joel Achenbach writes in The Washington Post. "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."

Great ti me to skip town. ABC's Karen Travers and Yunji de Nies raise the curtain: "President Obama departs today on a four-country, weeklong tour of Asia, his first trip to the region as president. But unlike previous presidential trips overseas this year, it is unlikely Obama will return home with any substantial agreements on the key issues facing him on the trip: climate change, North Korea's nuclear ambitions and a free trade agreement with South Korea."

The president's sked, per ABC's Sunlen Miller: "Before he leaves, the president will make a short statement about the economy in the Diplomatic Room. En route to Tokyo, Air Force One will make a few hour stop in Anchorage, Alaska. The president will meet with troops and give a short speech at Elmendorf Air Force base," she writes.

"The president's visit to Alaska has been a long time coming. During the campaign he'd often joke that the one state that he hadn't visited was Alaska, pausing for the imminent chuckles from the audience no doubt in reference to the former governor of Alaska and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin."

The trip runs the risk of seeming ill-timed — given the pressing issues on the domestic and world agendas that all demand some presidential attention: "If Obama faces any risk, it's the domestic backlash that could result if American voters feel he is spending too much time abroad while job losses mount back home," Peter Nicholas reports in the Chicago Tribune.

And is there room for this? (Yes.) "One country Obama has not seen yet is Afghanistan. It's not on the official schedule, but don't be shocked if the president takes a detour after leaving South Korea on Nov. 19 and drops in to visit the troops," Nicholas writes.

A new world image — and a new level of travel. CBS' Mark Knoller: "Even before President Obama sets foot on Air Force One tomorrow to begin a 9-day trip to Asia, he has traveled to more countries in his first year in office than any of his predecessors. Since taking office, he has made 7 foreign trips and visited 16 countries, 3 of them twice. The Asia trip – which takes him to Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea – will bring his total to 8 foreign trips and 20 countries."

Back to health care — that weekend deal looks worse for the wear with every passing day.

How much fun does this sound like? "White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, senior advisor Valerie Jarrett and Domestic Policy Council director Melody Barnes, health care reform czar Nancy-ann DeParle and other White House officials met with a dozen officials from liberal women's and abortion right's groups this afternoon where they had a ‘frank exchange,' in the words of one attendee," ABC's Jake Tapper reports.

Where's the civil war now? "A grim reality sits behind the joyful press statements from Washington Democrats. To secure passage of health care legislation in the House, the party chose a course that risks the well-being of millions of women for generations to come," Kate Michelman and Frances Kissling write in a New York Times op-ed. "Political calculation aside, the House Democrats reinforced the principle that a minority view on the morality of abortion can determine reproductive health policy for American women."

"I don't think we consider Nancy Pelosi an anti-choice Democrat, but we're extremely disappointed that this went to the floor," National Organization for Women vice president Erin Matson said on's "Top Line" Wednesday.

(And will a final bill that includes the Stupak amendment be part of NOW's legislative "scoring"? "Well, absolutely," Matson said.)

Getting real: "What happens now? Democratic supporters of abortion rights need to accept that their House majority depends on a large cadre of antiabortion colleagues. They can denounce that reality or they can learn to live with it," E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his column.

New from the DNC — the latest in the "call 'em out" series, with a Web video featuring the best (and worst) from House Republicans on health care. (Everything you need to see from CSPAN in two and a half minutes.)

New storyline: "Barack Obama ran for president on a promise of saving the typical family $2,500 a year in lower health care premiums. But that was then," Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown reports. "No one in the White House is making such a pledge now."

Wait — the Senate bill is still changing? "Majority Leader Harry Reid is considering a plan for higher payroll taxes on the upper-income earners to help finance health care legislation he intends to introduce in the Senate in the next several days, numerous Democratic officials said Wednesday," the AP's David Espo reports.

Just a slice of what Reid is going through: "He has complained to colleagues that the White House has pressured him to lean on the CBO to speed its cost estimates of the measure — something that could easily be seen as exerting improper influence on the CBO's calculations, which are supposed to be free of political pressure," Time's Karen Tumulty reports. "And he has been pleading with liberal interest groups to ease up on Senator Joe Lieberman — an independent whom Reid counts as part of his 60-member caucus — over Lieberman's public declaration that he will filibuster any bill that contains a public option."

The Wall Street Journal's Naftali Bendavid and Louise Radnofsky track the ad spending: "The fight over the future of the U.S. health-care system is heading outside the Beltway this week, as groups on all sides take advantage of Congress's Veterans Day recess to put pressure on lawmakers."

A timeline on "don't ask, don't tell" repeal? Happening in 2010, says Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.: "Military issues are always done as part of the overall authorization bill," Frank said, according to Kerry Eleveld of The Advocate. "'Don't ask, don't tell' was always going to be part of the military authorization."

"Both the White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) back the strategy of using the defense bill to change policy on gays in the military, an aide to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told The Hill on Wednesday," The Hill's Eric Zimmerman reports.

It begins: "Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty will unofficially launch the New Hampshire 2012 presidential campaign when he visits the first-in-the-nation primary state in December," the Union Leader's John DiStaso reports. " has learned the Republican will be the keynote speaker at a fund-raiser on for the Republican Senate Majority Committee PAC on Dec. 16 at the Courtyard By Marriott Hotel in Concord."

Mike Dennehy, a former McCain adviser who now advisers New Hampshire state Senate Republicans, to ABC's Teddy Davis: "Tim Pawlenty was really tops on their list to be the first person this cycle to raise money for them because he is a new, fresh face, he just started a political committee, and he has been traveling around to different states."

Teeing up Palin week: "We talked about everything," Oprah Winfrey said of her interview with former Gov. Sarah Palin, set to air Monday.

Palin, on Facebook: "Willow, Piper, and I are in Chicago and just wanted to let you know that I had a great conversation with Oprah today. We taped the show for Monday, November 16th, and enjoyed it so much that we went way over on time. The rest will air on Oprah was very hospitable and gracious, and her audience was full of warm, energized and (no doubt) curious viewers." (No doubt.)

On the Thursday radar screen: "Nearly 10 months after leaving office, former President George W. Bush plans to emerge from self-imposed political hibernation on Thursday as he starts a new public policy institute to promote some of the domestic and international priorities of his presidency," Peter Baker writes from Dallas for The New York Times. "In a speech at Southern Methodist University, home of his future library and museum, the former president will kick off the new George W. Bush Institute as a forum for study and advocacy in four main areas: education, global health, human freedom and economic growth. Advisers said he hoped his institute would be more focused on producing results than many research organizations are."

Thursday and Friday, at the Newseum: The Bloomberg Washington Summit. Thursday's interviews include Gen. David Petraeus; Ken Feinberg; Richard Trumka, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.; T. Boone Pickens; Joel I. Klein; Shaun Donovan; Peter Orszag; Neil Barofsky; Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; and Alex Castellanos.

The Kicker:

"While we don't agree on everything, of course she is welcome in the party. … That's what I should have said." — Gov. Tim Pawlenty, to The Washington Post's Dan Balz, after criticizing Sen. Olympia Snowe's moderate politics last week.

"Some leaders in the media, politics and business have been urging me to go beyond my role here at CNN and engage in constructive problem-solving." — Lou Dobbs, leaving CNN, but probably not going all that far.

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

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If you write well, follow politics closely, and have some familiarity with web publishing, send a cover letter and resume to Teddy Davis, ABC News' Deputy Political Director, at, by Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009, with the subject line: "INTERN" in all caps.

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