Article: Obama Defends Afghanistan Strategy to House Progressives (Washington Post)

Obama Defends Afghanistan Strategy to House Progressives

By Perry Bacon Jr.

President Obama defended his strategy in Afghanistan to a group of liberal House Democrats who have been skeptical of his approach, telling them an increase in troops and billions in spending there are the only way to stabilize the country.

In their first meeting with the president, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus repeatedly questioned Obama on his $83 billion request for funding on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Congress will vote on next month. Members of the Progressive Caucus say that too much of the money is being spent on military operations in Afghanistan, including a 17,000-troop increase, instead of investing in diplomatic solutions.

But Obama urged the members to allow him time to implement this strategy and then judge how it works. The liberals, about 50 of whom attended the meeting at the White House, said they were happy Obama listened to them, but still disagreed with some of his proposals. Several said after the meeting they still planned to vote against Obama's war funding request, which could still pass in Congress because many Republicans support Obama's approach.

And Rep. Lynn Woolsey (R-Calif.), one of co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus, said some members of the caucus remained concerned Obama had not set a firm deadline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and his pledges to remove troops from Iraq remained too vague.

"We said, 'We need timelines,'" Woolsey said. "He was adamant. He said, 'We have timelines in Iraq.' But he knows those timelines are too far away for most of us."

The progressives' concerns come against a backdrop of public support for the course the president has set. In the new Post-ABC poll, 82 percent of liberal Democrats and independents who lean Democratic said they approve of the way Obama has handled the situation in Afghanistan; among all Americans, the figure is 63 percent.

And while liberal members of Congress also have generally backed Obama, they have raised a variety of concerns over his stands and strongly advocated a "truth commission" to investigate alleged abuses by the Bush administration in fighting terrorism -- an idea Obama has opposed.

In the hour-long meeting, the group decided to push Obama on only two issues: health care and the war funding bill. Some liberal members have threatened to vote against health-care legislation unless it includes a "public plan," a health insurance option in which Americans could buy a health plan from the government designed like Medicare instead of through a private health insurance company. The progressive caucus members pressed Obama on the issue, and he assured them he was "an ally," as he advocated the idea himself during the presidential campaign.

But Obama told the members his focus was on signing a bill that would reduce costs for both the uninsured and people who already have health insurance, and he would not commit to insisting on a public option in any health care legislation he signs.

After several of the lawmakers urged him to consider a true single-payer health care system, Obama repeated arguments he has made since the campaign -- that such a system might have been desirable if one were designing the health care system from scratch but is not effective or practical now, according to a White House aide who was in the meeting.

Despite Obama's lack of movement on their issues, the members pronounced themselves pleased with the meeting.

"I walked out happier than when I walked in," said Michael Capuano (D-Mass.). "I'm willing to give him some time to see if his approach works."

White House officials described the meeting as "cordial" and said the president began by praising the liberal lawmakers for their help passing much of his early agenda.