As he navigates a range of politically unappealing options for health care reform and the Afghan war, President Obama is finding the two to be linked
The liberals in his own party are dismayed by Obama's apparent retreat on a public, government-run insurance program for health care, and his contemplated embrace of a ramped-up war plan for Afghanistan.
Republicans want Obama to go big in Afghanistan, with more troops, a broader footprint and a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy being touted by military leaders. They don't see much they like in health care reform, and may force him to accept a partisan win on the issue in Congress.
Both issues have become inextricably linked for the president, who could veer to the left on health care and give the unions and activists what they want, or mollify the right on the war -- but probably not both.
"I think in both cases, health care and Afghanistan, he is not going to get what he wants and still anger a good chunk of the electorate," said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist. "He is going to have to craft solutions in the middle to ameliorate both extremes, but the end result will probably be more enemies and fewer friends."
Money is also a factor. Obama has promised to load war funding back into the federal budget and cease the use of misleading supplemental funding requests. That move puts increased pressure on the budget, and Obama's promise to cut the deficit in half during his first term while holding the line on middle class taxes.
On Afghanistan, a steady drip of leaks and speculation are setting the stage for Obama to adopt a compromise plan, somewhere between the status quo and a costly, surgelike scenario envisioned by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S commander in Afghanistan.
"I think the great danger now is a half measure, sort of a, you know, try to please all ends of the political spectrum," Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona told CNN. "I have great sympathy for the president making the toughest decisions that presidents have to make."
Increasingly, unpleasant truths about governance have been piling up at the White House. The deep compromises of the president's signature health care reform measure were underscored by a recent speech he gave to the Congressional Black Caucus annual dinner, which omitted any reference to a public option for benefits.
Also largely sacrificed has been Obama's early goal of developing a bill with bipartisan support. Even keeping the Democratic Party together on the issue has proven a challenge for the administration.
Obama recounted a conversation at the Group of 20 summit with a fellow world leader who puzzled over the nation's deep partisan divides -- something that also at times appears to surprise the president.
"He says, 'We don't understand it,' " Obama said. " 'You're trying to make sure everybody has health care and they're putting a Hitler mustache on you -- I don't -- that doesn't make sense to me. Explain that to me.' "