One Subject Pushes Talk of Any Other to the Margins
WASHINGTON — One weekend last month, American forces drove into the Marja area of southern Afghanistan, opening the biggest military operation of the Obama presidency. In the five weeks since then, President Obama has made 38 speeches, statements or other public remarks and never once mentioned the operation.
In fact, amid roughly 100,000 words uttered in these mostly scripted events during that period, the terms “Taliban,” “Marja” and “terrorist” have never passed his lips. Nor has he had anything to say about settlement construction in East Jerusalem, militants in Pakistan or terrorist trials in New York. By contrast, he has used the words “health,” “insurance” or some variation of those terms more than 800 times.
The battle over health care in recent weeks has consumed Mr. Obama’s presidency, not to mention the rest of the nation’s capital, overshadowing virtually every other issue, foreign and domestic. Although his administration and Congress continue to work in other areas, like immigration, energy and jobs, by and large the nation’s leadership has been so fixated on health care that it would be easy to think it is the only issue of real import.
Mr. Obama’s decision to put off his trip to Indonesia and Australia to lobby for health care has undercut his own argument that he was paying attention to the region after his predecessor supposedly neglected it. And even some Democrats worry that his failure to talk about Afghanistan misses an opportunity to rally the public behind the war effort and to express support for the dangerous work of the troops.
“He’s concerned about health care — it’s his major challenge and I understand that,” said Representative Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “But at the end of the day, if Al Qaeda can pull off another one, you’ll have a bunch of dead Americans. That worries me. We’re playing hard ball over there. We’re playing for keeps.”
The president, of course, still spends time behind the scenes monitoring Afghanistan and weighing in on other policy matters. Aides said his personal engagement with President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia in recent days appears to have broken through a logjam holding up a new arms control treaty. And advisers are juggling negotiations with lawmakers on matters like the handling of terror suspects.
But presidential travel and the bully pulpit are vital tools used to send messages internationally and command attention at home, and Mr. Obama has chosen in the last couple months to focus those tools largely on his campaign for health care legislation.
All of which may be the smart use of his limited time and public voice, given how critical health care has become to his presidency. If he had left on Sunday for Jakarta and Canberra as the central domestic project of his term fell apart in the Capitol, it would have been seen by many as a strategic mistake. As it was, Democratic lawmakers were unhappy that he kept the trip on the schedule as long as he did, given the do-or-die nature of the debate.
But the decision to delay the trip until June came just days after the White House described it as vital because, as one official told reporters, “America has been somewhat absent from the region over the last several years and we are committed to re-establishing that leadership.”
Now America, or at least the president, will be absent from the region for another three months. Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said regional alliances “are critical to America’s security and economic progress, but passage of health insurance reform is of paramount importance.” Other aides said the Indonesian and Australian governments recognized it would be better to delay until a time when the president would not be distracted by events back home.
Still, Michael J. Green, who was the top Asia adviser to President George W. Bush, said that Asian governments were frustrated by the lack of progress by Mr. Obama in advancing trade. “They can sense that health care has absolutely sucked all the oxygen out of the room,” Mr. Green said.
The lack of public attention on Afghanistan has bothered some who otherwise support Mr. Obama’s policy. In the 38 speeches and public remarks since the battle for Marja began, Mr. Obama mentioned “Afghanistan” four times, always in passing — once to acknowledge an Afghan woman attending an International Women’s Day event and three times to thank visiting Irish and Greek prime ministers for troops and police officers serving there.
Other than health care, the main topics in that time have been jobs, energy and education. (The count covers remarks posted on the White House Web site, not interviews, which generally are not released by the president’s staff.)
Supporters of the Afghan effort said it was important for the president to explain to the public what the United States is doing there. Peter D. Feaver, a former national security aide to Mr. Bush, said Mr. Obama risks sending the message that “his heart’s not in it.” Mr. Feaver added, “Even if it’s an unfair inference, and I think it probably is an unfair inference, it’s one the allies will be happy to glom onto for their own interests.”
But Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, who is retired from the Army and is now a senior adviser at the National Security Network, a group advocating a “progressive national security” policy, said Mr. Obama’s silence should not be overinterpreted. “We say he’s a wartime president, but he has so much on his plate right now,” he said. “I’m not offended that a particular topic like health care has sucked up all the oxygen in Washington, D.C.”
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