Back In D.C., Obama's Afghan Plan Looms

President Barack Obama walks his family Malia, first lady Michelle Obama and Sasha, upon their arrival at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Monday, Feb. 16, 2009. AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

President Barack Obama's chief spokesman said Monday that he will make a decision "within days, not weeks," on how many additional troops to send to Afghanistan, and when.

"Without getting into broad timelines, I don't think this is anything that involves weeks," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said when asked about the timing of Obama's decision. The presidential spokesman underscored that Obama's move would come shortly.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs made the observation in a chat with reporters Monday aboard Air Force One as Obama and his family flew back to Washington after a long weekend in his hometown of Chicago.

The president, his wife and daughters returned at midday.

Among items topping Obama's agenda this week is signing into law the $787 billion economic stimulus plan that Congress passed last Friday.

Obama has been expected to send fresh forces to the Afghan battle even as a wide review of U.S. strategy and goals there gets fully under way.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates had told a Pentagon news conference last week that Obama "will have several options in front of him." Gates suggested, as have other officials, that the ground commander in Afghanistan would eventually get all the forces he has asked for, but no more.

Lt. Gen. David McKiernan wants more fighting forces and support troops such as helicopter crews to push back against the Taliban in Afghanistan's increasingly dangerous southern and eastern regions.

An opponent of the "surge" of U.S. forces that is now credited with turning around the Iraq war, Obama has taken a cautious approach to the addition of forces in Afghanistan. He is expected to initially approve only part of a military request for as many as 30,000 forces this year, while military and civilian advisers revamp U.S. war goals.

While in Chicago, the first family did not have a public schedule. The president played basketball with friends, visited the gym and got a haircut. Barack and Michelle Obama celebrated Valentine's Day with a dinner at Oprah Winfrey's personal chef's restaurant on Saturday.

It was Obama's first significant break since taking office on Jan. 20.

Obama won't be in Washington long; he heads to Denver as well as Arizona and Canada this week.

He plans to sign the stimulus legislation in Denver on Tuesday - a further sign he intends to take his economic message to the American people, who are giving him high marks for handling the crisis.

"He is determined to keep in touch with the American people who sent him here to do this job," Obama senior adviser David Axelrod said on "Fox News Sunday.

Passage of the stimulus - unprecedented in its cost to the federal treasury - was a major victory for Obama as he struggles to lift America out of an economic nosedive not seen since the 1930s Great Depression.

While predicting Americans would begin to see a decline in the skyrocketing unemployment rate once the money begins to flow, top Obama aides cautioned Sunday that the economy would continue its negative spiral in the near future.

"The president has said it's likely to get worse before it gets better," Axelrod said. "But I do expect the rise in unemployment to be retarded."

On Monday, former President Clinton gave Obama high marks for quick passage of the stimulus package.

Clinton said in an interview broadcast on NBC's "Today" show that he believes Obama "is off to a good start." He said the new president and his economics team handled the controversial stimulus plan well, "given the fact that they had to do it in a hurry."

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the wife of the former president, arrived in Tokyo on Monday on her first trip abroad as Obama's top diplomat.

She said Washington's alliance with Japan is a cornerstone for U.S. foreign policy and urged North Korea to live up to its commitments to dismantle its nuclear programs.

On another major crisis facing the administration, Axelrod told NBC that any plan to shore up the auto industry will require sacrifice by all involved, from auto workers and industry executives to shareholders and creditors.

On Sunday, sources within the administration said Obama plans to appoint senior administration officials - rather than a single "car czar," as had been discussed - to oversee a restructuring of the auto industry.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers will oversee the across-the-government panel, a senior administration official said Sunday on condition of anonymity because no announcement had been made.

They'll have to get to work quickly because of Tuesday's deadline for GM and Chrysler to file their massive restructuring plans, reports CBS News correspondent Chip Reid. The task force will study those plans, then report to the president who will decide whether to continue pouring billions into the two companies, or whether to force them to go into bankruptcy to be restructured.

Ford is not involved in this process, Reid adds, because they haven't asked for a federal bailout.
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