8 a.m. ET: The Afghanistan war has become plagued by uncertainty both on the ground and in the halls of Washington, as the government there wobbles through the aftermath of a disputed election and the one here remains divided over the way forward.
The progress of "Obama's War" has become dependent on the domestic politics of both nations. In Kabul, the post-election situation is, to put it gently, fluid. Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up in the balloting to Hamid Karzai, "said Wednesday he was preparing for a runoff to decide the disputed election here. But he left open the possibility that he might join a coalition with Mr. Karzai that would make a new round of voting unnecessary," the New York Times writes. Got that? Abdullah's indecision comes after Karzai finally agreed to a runoff, following days of talks with John Kerry.
"According to one Western diplomat, the Afghan president was more comfortable dealing with Sen. Kerry than with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry or the administration's special representative to the region, Richard Holbrooke," the Wall Street Journal reports, adding that Holbrooke had previously "angered" Karzai. Kerry -- previously spurned in his desire to be Obama's secretary of state -- gets lots of favorable press for this deal, including a Boston Globe front-page headline: "For Kerry, a diplomatic triumph." The Washington Times focuses on Holbrooke's absence, noting that when "Mr. Obama praised his diplomatic team for its success, Mr. Holbrooke's name was pointedly missing." The envoy's staff says he's busy in Washington, working on the president's Afpak strategic review.
On that subject, divisions between Obama's advisers became more public Tuesday after Robert Gates said of Obama's decisionmaking, “We are not going to just sit on our hands waiting for the outcome of this election and for the emergence of a government in Kabul." On Sunday, Rahm Emanuel made essentially the opposite point, saying "It would be reckless to make a decision on U.S. troop level" before knowing whether "there's an Afghan partner" in place to assist.
Wednesday brings another survey showing the public's increasing pessimism on the direction of the conflict. The Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 47 percent of respondents supported the idea of a troop buildup and 49 percent opposed it. Approval of Obama's handling of Afghanistan dropped to 45 percent, down from a high of 63 percent in April, with much of the fall attributable to disillusioned Republicans who worry that Obama is wavering on his commitment to the fight. Democrats, meanwhile, also have their doubts, but for the opposite reason.
"Likely much of these numbers are tied to U.S. casualties, which have climbed with U.S. troop deployments (now about 68,000) and with their more aggressive tactics," the Los Angeles Times observes. "With more than two months left in 2009, this year's U.S. deaths there total 418, 42% larger than during all of 2008. That's about one American soldier's death every 16 hours." ABC News says the new data "describes the political box in which the president finds himself. If he sends more troops to Afghanistan he risks losing support from Democrats, who are far more skeptical of the war; if not, he risks alienating Republicans and a substantial share of independents."
The news for Obama is a bit better on the health-care front. Another new poll, this one from USA Today and Gallup, finds "Americans are increasingly worried about the cost and quality of medical care that could result from President Obama's effort to revamp health care, but a majority still trust him more than Republicans to change the system." The survey found 50 percent in favor of the public insurance option, and 46 percent opposed. And it showed a majority of respondents support a surtax on the wealthy to pay for reform, but they oppose taxing the most expensive health plans and reducing Medicare payments to providers.
In the House, The Washington Post reports that "leaders have cut the cost of their health-care overhaul to around $871 billion over the next decade," as Nancy Pelosi works to assemble 218 votes for the latest version of the reform package. CNN notes that the latest version would also cut the deficit over the next 10 years, a key selling point for Obama. This one features reimbursement rates for doctors and hospitals tied to those paid by Medicare, an element that will make it difficult to draw wide support among Blue Dogs and other rural Democrats. Politico writes that Pelosi's decision sets up "a clash with moderates in her caucus who oppose the plan," but the Speaker is pushing forward anyway, as she hopes to enter negotiations with the Senate with the strongest possible public option in the House bill.
Senate negotiations intensified Tuesday, as "Democratic moderates jockeyed to position themselves," Roll Call reports. Olympia Snowe has been meeting with Ben Nelson and other centrists from both parties, while Emanuel and other White House officials plan to sit down again with Harry Reid and other key negotiators Wednesday evening. The Los Angeles Times profiles the six administration staffers at the center of the health-care fight -- Emanuel, Nancy-Ann DeParle, Jim Messina, Phil Schiliro, Dan Pfeiffer and Peter Orszag.
October 21, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
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