Just after proclaiming October as National Cybersecurity Awareness Month and just before departing for Copenhagen to lobby for his hometown as an Olympics host city, President Obama found the time Thursday to pop by the posh St. Regis Hotel a few blocks from the White House to hobnob with a gathering of Democratic governors and help raise some campaign cash.
But he didn’t find time to say a word about the war in Afghanistan and what he plans to do about it. He didn’t refer to the deteriorating situation there or take questions from the press corps - which he’s done just once in five weeks.
The 125 or so attendees opened with arugula salad mixed with pecans. On golden embroidered tablecloths under giant crystal chandeliers, they proceeded to the baked salmon over risotto, finishing off the meal with small, delicate dessert canapes.
After meeting and greeting the eight governors and VIPs in a private reception, Mr. Obama assured the supportive crowd that the federal government is staying focused on the important issues.
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“I know some folks say we should focus on fixing the economy instead of on health insurance reform,” he said before falling into a familiar pitch on health care. He added that America has a “rare moment where we have a chance to seize our future.”
In the past month, the president has found the time to play golf - four times. He’s had links legend Arnold Palmer and other top golfers over to the White House. He’s shot some hoops with friends and yukked it up with hockey’s Pittsburgh Penguins.
He’s celebrated Ramadan at the White House, eulogized newsman Walter Cronkite in New York City, attended several fundraisers (including Thursday afternoon’s luncheon), appeared on David Letterman’s late-night show (one of eight interviews), delivered two speeches to AFL-CIO rallies and dropped by the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial for a visit with his wife and daughters.
And the brief jaunt to Copenhagen to buttonhole members of the International Olympic Committee on behalf of Chicago’s 2016 Olympics bid was Mr. Obama’s seventh trip out of town since Sept. 1.
Yet still no decision on strategy for the war in Afghanistan.
The president was vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard on Aug. 30 when Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal sent Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates a war assessment in which he said more U.S. troops - and a new U.S. strategy - are urgently needed to defeat a growing insurgency in Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama promptly went to Camp David for a five-day vacation (he’s talked to the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan just once since Gen. McChrystal urged swift action). Forty-three U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan in the past 30 days.
After exactly a month, the president on Wednesday convened a meeting in the White House Situation Room with his national security team on Afghanistan, his first since the general delivered his report.
And a stark report it is. Like most military brass, Gen. McChrystal didn’t mince words. He said flatly that he needs additional troops or else the conflict “will likely result in failure.” He urges an additional 30,000 to 40,000 combat troops to right the situation.
So, a day after the all-hands meeting on Afghanistan (the White House even sent reporters a list of attendees, a rarity for top-secret Situation Room meetings), Mr. Obama got down to business - raising a half-million dollars for the campaign coffers of the Democratic governors.
The White House bristles when asked whether Mr. Obama is so distracted by domestic affairs and health care that he is unable to focus on Afghanistan.
“Just yesterday I was asked why we were being diverted so much by foreign issues and why we weren’t talking about health care,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters at a White House briefing Wednesday. “Maybe you guys should huddle, maybe come up with one premise that we’ll at least test for one day.”
Meanwhile, back in the basement of the White House, the president’s top advisers and military officials are far apart on what course of action to take. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton leans toward a troop increase; retired Gen. James L. Jones, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, is not so supportive. The ever-helpful Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. favors scaling back the number of combat troops in Afghanistan and targeting more attacks in Pakistan.
In the end, the White House meeting achieved a consensus to hold more meetings, up to five, including two next week. The president will take “the next several weeks to review our strategy,” Mr. Gibbs said.
Meanwhile, upstairs in the Oval Office, the president spent Thursday taking care of more pressing business. He nominated Carolyn W. Colvin to be deputy commissioner of Social Security. He picked Paul K. Martin to be inspector general of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He issued an executive order demanding federal workers stop texting while driving government vehicles.
And just before jetting off to Copenhagen, he took time to proclaim October as National Information Literacy Awareness Month.
“Every day, we are inundated with vast amounts of information,” he wrote in the proclamation. “Though we may know how to find the information we need, we must also know how to evaluate it,” he said, adding hopefully that modern technology “can help in our day-to-day decision-making.”
Joseph Curl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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