Obama's War on Two Fronts: Health Care and Afghanistan

PHOTO Our exclusive headliner Senator John McCain talks about his recent visiting with Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan in a special edition of ?This Week with George Stephanopoulos?Paul Connors/ABC News
Our exclusive headliner Senator John McCain talks about his recent visiting with Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan in a special edition of ?This Week with George Stephanopoulos? live from the Grand Canyon, Sunday, August 23, 2009.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll out this week shows support for President Obama's health care plans has dropped, with less than half of Americans, 45 percent, approving his handling of health care reform.

Yet health care reform might not be Obama's only problem.

Besides health care and the decline in his formerly sky-high approval rating as president, there is Afghanistan, which held its second-ever national election this week, putting a spotlight on the turmoil that still exists there and making it clear that there's more work to be done.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the former Republican presidential nominee who recently returned from spending most of the August congressional recess with the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, discussed America's wars and more on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

VIDEO: Sen. John McCain on AfghanistanPlay

The exclusive interview took place on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, where McCain is preparing for Senate field hearings on the national parks.

McCain had no quarrel with how President Obama is prosecuting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he's worried that the commanding general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, is being pressured to not produce a clear recommendation for more troops.

His main concern was that McChrystal's strategic review (expected in the next couple of weeks) won't include a specific request for more troops.

"We need to know exactly what resources he needs," McCain said. "Gen. McChrystal is going to make some recommendations. I'm not happy with what he's going to do. ... It will be high risk, medium risk, low risk. Whenever you do that, they always pick the medium risk. I think he ought to do what Gen. Petraeus did, and that's decide exactly on the number he needs and then we debate it."

McCain said McChrystal is under "great pressures" from people in the administration to reduce estimates for more troops, but the pressure isn't coming from Obama.

"I think it's from people around him and others ... that I think don't want to see a significant increase in our troop presence there," McCain said.

Yet McCain did not criticize Obama on the war front even when asked whether he would be fighting the two wars differently if he were president.

Holding true to Obama's agreement to withdraw troops from the region by 2011, McCain reiterated the same idea that it can and should be met.

"We've made an agreement, we're going to have to stick to it," McCain said. "As far as active combat involvement is concerned, I think we're going to be out of there. I think that's the commitment that we've made."

But McCain mentioned the aftermath of war should not be forgotten.

"It's very obvious that for at least three years, we conducted the war in Iraq in the wrong fashion. And we paid a very heavy price in American blood and treasure," he said.

McCain expects it will be a year to 18 months before we see any real improvement.

"I think you need to see a reversal of these very alarming and disturbing trends on attacks, casualties, areas of the country that the Taliban has increased control of," McCain said. "And I think we can do that in the year to 18 months."

But the clock is ticking. A majority of Americans think it's not worth fighting, and many have said they don't want an increase in troops.

McCain thinks otherwise. After returning from visiting Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan this month, he called for the doubling of Marines in the south region of Helmand, the world's largest opium-poppy growing region.

Obama has made clear his plans to begin a drawdown of forces in Iraq and to shift resources to Afghanistan by sending 17,000 troops by the end of the year.

McCain Defends Former Running Mate on 'Death Panels'

During the interview, McCain also sided with his former running mate, defending ex-vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's claim that the health care reform bill would create "death panels" to encourage euthanasia.

McCain repeatedly argued that the bill would create boards to decide the most effective measures to provide health care for people.

"Doesn't that lead to a possibility, at least opens the door to a possibility of rationing and decisions ... such are made in other countries?" McCain asked host George Stephanopoulos.

Though every single independent group that has looked at the issues has said such an interpretation wasn't true, McCain responded, "Well, then, why did the Democrats turn down our amendments?"

So is Sarah Palin right?

"Look, I don't think they were called death panels, don't get me wrong," McCain said. "But on the best treatment procedures part of the bill, it does open it up to decisions being made as far -- that should be left -- those choices left to the patient and the individual."

Health Care's Legacy: Sen. Ted Kennedy

On a more personal level, McCain said publicly what many have been saying privately -- that there's a noticeable difference in the health care debate on Capitol Hill with the absence of Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.

"No person in that institution is indispensable, but Ted Kennedy comes as close to being indispensable as any individual I've ever known in the Senate because he had a unique way of sitting down with the parties at a table and making the right concessions, which really are the essence of successful negotiations. So it's huge that he's absent, not only because of my personal affection for him, but because I think the health care reform might be in a very different place today."

McCain urged the president to begin his own bipartisan negotiations under one condition -- that he drop his push for a so-called "public option."

"I think he'd have to abandon the public option," McCain said, "and that I think is what a lot of Americans now are concerned about."

Roundtable: 'Are We Out of the Woods?'

It was a spirited debate this week on the roundtable during discussions on the politics of the week.

Returning to the roundtable was ABC News contributor George Will, along with former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum. Joining them was Nobel Prize-winning economist and ABC contributor Paul Krugman and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. They discussed health care reform, the economy and the war in Afghanistan.

The roundtable first kicked off with a question on where the health care debate stands right now. Should Obama start fresh, invite Republicans and Democrats into the Oval Office, and write up a new bill?

Will's take on Obama's handling of the debate on health care reform was that his messaging has been "ubiquitous and often shrill."

"The president is trying to get radical change without the propellant of underlying broad-base deep-seated contempt," Will said. "To compensate for that absence, he's been ubiquitous and often shrill. Ubiquitous to the point where he is kind of like elevator music in American life. He's everywhere all the time. Shrill in the sense that, he has said I have been opposed of scare tactics and fear-mongering but he says be very afraid of ..."

Reich disagreed: "I don't think the president has been shrill. In fact, if anything, I think he hasn't been shrill enough."

Despite their differences on White House messaging, all panelists on the roundtable agreed on one thing: The U.S. health care system is unraveling.

"Americans are still OK with the care they got and of course they are scared with what will happen, but this system is unraveling," Krugman said. "[Obama] has not gotten across the fact that this thing is coming apart, that premiums have more or less doubled in the past decade, and that more and more companies are dropping their coverage for their workers."

Frum agreed, but said he believes Obama has missed his target on tackling health care by solely focusing on the uninsured and neglecting a viable solution on how to pay for it all.

"There is a problem, there is a financial problem, as Bob and Paul have said, but the president is not offering a solution to that problem," Frum said. "He's offering a solution to a completely different problem which he is not talking about. ... The problem, he thinks, is the uninsured -- and the answer to that, he says, is a state system of some kind."

The rising cost of health care drugs has been a top concern for Americans overall in the debate over health care reform, but Will seemed to disagree that drugs were unrealistic in cost.

"Americans obviously want 2009 medicine at 1959 prices," Will said. "The trouble is that 1959 medicine wasn't very good."

Krugman warned that trouble was ahead for the current health care system and its impact on the economy.

"This is a system that is coming apart at the seams," he said. "Once we get the numbers for what's been happening in this recession, it's going to be horrific."

Frum, of NewMajority.com, agreed the president needs to change his approach on health care reform.

"The price for insurance health reform should be a 'jettison,'" he said. "The Democrats should jettison their attempt to nationalize the health care system or do anything approaching it. And that is where the president has put us on the wrong track."

"Is It Over Yet?"

On Friday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke released a statement saying the economy is leveling off and that the prospects for growth are pretty good.

So is this a sign that the recession is now over?

Krugman believes that it's not completely over, but is in somewhat of a resting place.

"We have got a problem with terminology, because we usually say, Either the economy is in recession or the economy is recovering," he said. "Either you're in hell or you're in heaven. And the trouble is, we're actually in purgatory."

Krugman added that the economy actually is in a situation where GDP is growing, and he believes it's likely that the Business Cycle Dating Committee will eventually decide that the recession ended this summer.

But, he warned, "we're still losing jobs."

Reich disagreed that the economy is "out of the woods" just yet.

"Anyone who says that we are 'out of the woods' or even moving into the woods has got to be lost at sea. There is no evidence that this economy is doing much better. The best that can be said is that we are getting worse more slowly," Reich said.

Is Afghanistan Obama's Vietnam?

The New York Times on Sunday compared President Barack Obama with President Lyndon Johnson because of the two presidents' attempts to aggressively tackle a domestic agenda while fighting a war abroad.

Reich argued that the focus has been predominately on health care, that Americans are too concerned with issues at home.

"I don't think the American people have focused on Afghanistan at all," Reich said. "I mean, health care and the economy dominate the agenda, which is good for Obama. I mean, he has some time because they haven't focused."

Others felt there was no parallel between the two, that Afghanistan is not what Vietnam was.

"This is not LBJ," Krugman said. "This is not 500,000 American troops who are drafted. This is not your son, your neighbor's son, being sent off to the war. This is not every college student terrified about that letter arriving, saying, greetings from the president of the United States."

"So although this could work out very badly, I'm very nervous about it," added Krugman, "I don't think it has all that much political relevance."