Politics Today: Crunch Time for Obama

Politics Today is CBSNews.com's inside look at the key stories driving the day in politics, written by CBS News Political Director Steve Chaggaris:

** The president takes it all on, from Afghanistan to jobs...

** A message on Afghanistan for Americans and for Pakistan...

** The Senate health care debate gets started...

PRESIDENT OBAMA: "The White House says Afghanistan and climate change will top President Barack Obama's agenda when he meets with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd [at 11:10am ET today]," reports the Associated Press.

"[Today's] meeting comes a day before Obama delivers a national address from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where he's expected to announce an increase of up to 35,000 U.S. troops as part of a revised strategy for the war in Afghanistan. Australia has about 1,550 troops there, the largest contribution of any country outside of NATO.

"The meeting also comes ahead of global climate talks in Denmark. Rudd's government wants to slash Australia's greenhouse gas emissions by up to 25 percent below 2000 levels by 2020 if tough global targets can be agreed upon at the Copenhagen summit."

Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman, "Critical Decisions This Week on Batch of Obama Initiatives": "A cascade of events this week, involving high-profile topics from Afghanistan to health care to jobs, is challenging the Obama White House's strategy of launching so many initiatives so fast in its first year."

New York Times' Jeff Zeleny, "Vital Tests for Obama on Mandate of Change": "In a narrow sense, President Obama's handling of the critical issues of health care and Afghanistan in the weeks ahead will test the depth of his support among Democrats and determine whether he can draw Republicans to his foreign policy.

"But more broadly, how he manages those two challenges will provide the biggest trial yet of his ability to use the mandate he claimed more than a year ago to bring about substantial change in a political system that often conspires against it.

"He is heading into this pivotal moment with his job-approval ratings down and much of his initial shine tarnished by months of political combat."

Politico's John F. Harris, "7 stories Barack Obama doesn't want told"

AFGHANISTAN: New York Times' Peter Baker, Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger, "President Obama plans to lay out a time frame for winding down the American involvement in the war in Afghanistan when he announces his decision this week to send more forces, senior administration officials said Sunday.

"Although the speech was still in draft form, the officials said the president wanted to use the address at the United States Military Academy at West Point on Tuesday night not only to announce the immediate order to deploy roughly 30,000 more troops, but also to convey how he intends to turn the fight over to the Kabul government.

"'It's accurate to say that he will be more explicit about both goals and time frame than has been the case before and than has been part of the public discussion,' said a senior official, who requested anonymity to discuss the speech before it is delivered. 'He wants to give a clear sense of both the time frame for action and how the war will eventually wind down.'"

Boston Globe's Farah Stockman, "Afghan war cost grips both parties": "A day before he is scheduled to announce a new strategy in Afghanistan, President Obama is under increasing pressure to explain how his administration intends to pay the rising costs of military operations in Afghanistan, which average about $3.6 billion per month.

"Both Republicans and Democrats pressed the issue yesterday, previewing the political minefield that Obama will face when he addresses the nation from West Point tomorrow. Key Republicans said they intend to support him on his expected plan to send more troops, but called on him to curb domestic spending on items they oppose.

"'Can we trim up the health care to fight a war that must be won?' asked Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on ABC's 'This Week.' He also suggested rethinking the stimulus payments sent to states to help jump-start the economy.

"Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made similar remarks, signaling that Obama's strongest backers on the war would use the opportunity to oppose him on other issues."

Wall Street Journal's Bob Davis: "'We have to begin to pay for everything we do,' said Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and former Army Ranger who plays a leading role in the party on military issues. 'Whether it's broken out specifically or not (and paid for by a tax) is a detail,' he said on CNN's 'State of the Union.' He said the surge shouldn't be paid for 'indefinitely, through deficits,' ...

"House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin has proposed a war 'surtax' to pay for additional spending in Afghanistan. While that proposal isn't likely to be approved, it has started a debate on how to pay for the troop surge in ways that don't add to the deficit."

"Given the economic climate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said it would be 'immoral' to escalate the war in Afghanistan without introducing new taxes or taking other measures to pay for it," adds the Los Angeles Times' Greg Miller.

"'No one is talking about bringing the troops home tomorrow," Sanders said in an interview on ABC's 'This Week.' 'But if you're going to have a presence there, you just can't pass the bill on, as we did in Iraq, to our kids and our grandchildren. I think that's wrong.'"

(AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)
Washington Post's Karen DeYoung, "U.S. offers new role for Pakistan": "President Obama has offered Pakistan an expanded strategic partnership, including additional military and economic cooperation, while warning with unusual bluntness that its use of insurgent groups to pursue policy goals 'cannot continue.'

"The offer, including an effort to help reduce tensions between Pakistan and India, was contained in a two-page letter delivered to President Asif Ali Zardari this month by Obama national security adviser James L. Jones. It was accompanied by assurances from Jones that the United States will increase its military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan and that it plans no early withdrawal.

"Obama's speech Tuesday night at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., will address primarily the Afghanistan aspects of the strategy. But despite the public and political attention focused on the number of new troops, Pakistan has been the hot core of the months-long strategy review. The long-term consequences of failure there, the review concluded, far outweigh those in Afghanistan."

5696255HEALTH CARE: "With the Senate set to begin debate Monday on President Barack Obama's signature domestic issue, the all-hands-on-deck Democratic coalition that allowed the health care reform legislation to advance is coming apart," reports the Associated Press' Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar.

"While majority Democrats will need 60 votes again to finish, some in the party say they'll jump ship from the bill without tighter restrictions on abortion coverage. Others say they'll go unless a government plan to compete with private insurance companies gets tossed. Such concessions would enrage liberals, the party's heart and soul.

"There's no clear course for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to steer legislation through Congress to the president's desk. You can't make history unless you reach 60 votes, and don't count on Republicans helping him."

"The next phase in the Democrats' health care push will be waged in the privacy of the Senate leadership office, where Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will attempt to do something that has eluded him all year: negotiate a compromise on the public insurance option that can garner 60 votes and win over a public still leery of reform," adds Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown.

"'There is the inside fight and the outside fight,' said Jim Kessler, a former top aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and vice president for policy at Third Way. 'The inside fight is getting to 60, and the outside fight is winning the battle of public opinion.'

"The debate starts at 3 p.m. Monday with each side offering one amendment — a sign of how difficult the debate will be, since the two sides couldn't agree to terms of the debate beyond the first two amendments.

"Republicans want six weeks of debate — which would be enough to push the final vote past Christmas — and have an arsenal of stalling tactics. But Democrats can short-circuit the debate all at once, simply by reaching a deal on the public option and filing cloture on the bill, which would set up the final crucial test vote before final passage.

"Asked when he thought the debate would end, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said, 'When there are 60 votes.'"

Gallup Poll, "Americans Still Leaning Against Healthcare Legislation": "Americans currently tilt against Congress' passing healthcare legislation, with 49 percent saying they would advise their member to vote against a bill (or they lean that way) and 44 percent saying they would advocate a vote in favor of the bill (or lean toward advising a yes vote)."

Washington Post's David S. Hilzenrath, "Even if health bill passes soon, wait for reforms could be long": "Some of the main reforms would not take place for several years, and even when they do, some observers say, the bill does too little to make sure they would be enforced.

"Until 2014, insurance companies could continue to deny coverage or charge higher premiums based on people's medical history. Another highly touted reform -- banning annual and lifetime limits on coverage -- would take effect in 2010, but it would permit significant exceptions.

"Even with those rules in place, 'there's no power to really hold the insurance companies accountable,' said consumer advocate Betty Ahrens, executive director of the Iowa Citizen Action Network. 'It's toothless.'"

USA Today's John Fritze, "Eight influential senators play key roles in health care debate": Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev.; Ben Nelson, D-Neb.; Olympia Snowe, R-Maine; Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.; Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.; Roland Burris, D-Ill.; Mary Landrieu, D-La.

Associated Press' Andrew Miga, "Maine's moderate Republican senators thriving"

Washington Post's Lori Montgomery, "In health-care reform, no deficit cure"

JOBS: "As Democrats renew their push to create jobs, they are at odds over the timing, cost and scope of additional measures, with the White House's concern about high budget deficits pitted against the eagerness of many in Congress to spur hiring before next year's elections," reports the New York Times' Jackie Calmes.

"After months in which his focus has been on a health care overhaul and foreign policy issues, President Obama will pivot later this week to the economy, convening a White House forum on Thursday to discuss ideas for job creation and then traveling to Allentown, Pa., for his first stop on a 'Main Street Tour.'

"Congressional Democrats return from a holiday break intent on packaging new proposals for tax incentives and construction projects to promote employment, with the House, where every member is up for re-election next year, on a much faster track than the Senate or the White House.

"While the political rationale for additional government action is clear, it is an open question whether it would have any substantial economic effect. Still, the impetus for the activity will be underscored on Friday when the government releases figures for job losses and the unemployment rate for November."

"A number of chief executives say the government should clear up uncertainty over health care, energy prices and financial regulations," add the Wall Street Journal's Neil King Jr. and Gary Fields. "'Companies large and small are saying, 'I am not going to do anything until these things -- health care, climate legislation -- go away or are resolved,' ' said Dan DiMicco, chief executive of steelmaker Nucor Corp.

"Democrats in Congress say they hope to pass a bill in coming months aimed at creating jobs. White House aides are being more circumspect. 'Hiring often takes time to catch up to economic growth,' said Valerie Jarrett, an adviser on business issues to President Barack Obama. 'At the same time, there are limits to what government can and should do, even during such difficult times.'

"Mr. Obama invited business and labor leaders, as well as academics and economists, to the 'jobs summit' at the White House Thursday, the day before the release of new employment data. Ms. Jarret said the aim is to create 'a climate that will spur short-term job creation.' Other officials say Mr. Obama is seeking ways to work with the private sector but will offer no concrete proposals at the event.
Among those invited are the chief executives of Boeing Co., AT&T Inc. and FedEx Corp., along with the heads of many smaller companies."

New York Times' John Harwood, "Unemployment and Midterms": " If they crave comfort, Democratic candidates can grab onto this: political science research finds little historical connection between unemployment and midterm Congressional elections. But neither the Obama White House nor outside Democratic strategists count on that evidence to protect them in the midterm elections of 2010."

5803574WHITE HOUSE CRASHERS: New York Times' Matthew L. Wald and Eric Schmitt, "As part of a broadening inquiry into presidential security, Secret Service agents have interviewed the Virginia couple who sneaked into a White House state dinner last week, a senior federal official involved in the investigation said Sunday.

"The interviews, which took place Friday and Saturday, were conducted in a neutral location, neither the home of the couple, Michaele and Tareq Salahi, nor the Secret Service's downtown offices, the official said. He would not comment on the content of the interviews or their length. ...

"The Secret Service is still considering bringing charges against the Salahis, the senior federal official said, but the investigation is continuing."

Wall Street Journal's Shira Ovide, Sam Schechner and Bob Davis, "Party Crashers Seek to Sell Their Story": "Representatives acting on behalf of the Virginia couple who allegedly crashed a White House state dinner have contacted multiple media outlets to try to sell an interview with the pair, according to people familiar with the matter.

"One person said the couple—Tareq and Michaele Salahi—was seeking a fee in the high six figures.
No news outlets contacted said they would pay the Salahis to discuss an event some executives said was likely to die down soon. Several TV organizations said they would be happy to interview the couple without payment."

Washington Post's Michael D. Shear and Spencer S. Hsu, "The bizarre breach at the White House state dinner last week lends new urgency to a review of Secret Service procedures that was begun after President Obama's inauguration, and threatens to revive questions about how much security is enough for the country's elected leader.

"A senior Secret Service official said a 'top-to-bottom' review of the agency's protective department was ordered shortly after Obama began his term amid the highest threat level for any recent president. The results are due soon, said spokesman James Mackin.

"But Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the Virginia couple who waltzed, uninvited, into the White House and shook hands with Obama on Tuesday night provided new evidence that in a democracy, it is far from impossible to breach the bubble of security around the chief executive.

"The breakdown stunned the top aides to the first African American president and forced a rare apology from the director of the Secret Service. And it led to predictions that security around the first family will rapidly become more intense."

Associated Press, "Senators: Take action against White House crashers": "Two senators said Sunday that authorities should pursue criminal charges against the Virginia couple who crashed last week's state dinner at the White House.

"'You've got to send a strong deterrent that people just don't do this kind of thing,' Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana said on 'Fox News Sunday.'

"Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona agreed, saying, 'If it's a federal crime to lie to a federal agent, and these people didn't tell the truth about their invitation, then they should be in some way brought to justice here, again, as an example to others not to do it.'"


Seattle Times' Jim Brunner, "Former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee has controversial record of freeing criminals"

McClatchy Newspaper's Rob Hotakainen, "Political clash expected soon over rising U.S. $12 trillion debt"

Washington Post's Jon Cohen and Dan Balz, "Today's GOP is both united and divided"

CBSNews.com, "RNC Big Ten: A Litmus Test for the GOP?"

Washington Post's Jon Cohen and Dan Balz, "Palin particularly popular among fans of Limbaugh and Beck"

Boston Globe's Brian C. Mooney, "Up against the clock in Senate race"

CQ Politics' Emily Cadei, "Dukakis Endorses Capuano for Mass. Senate Seat"

Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Eric Stirgus, "Mayoral candidates go on attack in final TV debate"

  • Steve Chaggaris

    Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' senior political editor.