WASHINGTON -- President Obama's decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan by adding 30,000 U.S. troops -- at the same time announcing an exit strategy to start in July 2011 with no firm end date -- was clearly difficult for many of his most ardent supporters. This is not a popular policy with an important segment of Obama's base.
I've never really known Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 man in the Senate, to be at a loss for words. He's one of the most informed and articulate senators, but his terse statement showed how he was wrestling with the new policy. "President Obama asked for time to make his decision on a new policy in Afghanistan," he said. "I am going to take some time to think through the proposal he presented tonight."
Did Obama make the case for bolstering the troop level -- again? When he took office in January, there were 32,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. He raised that to 68,000; then he boosted that by 30,000 in Tuesday night's speech at West Point.
Obama was elected on a surge of anti-Iraq war sentiment; he always supported the Afghanistan war. I'm not the first to make this observation, but it's worth repeating: Obama now owns a war he inherited from former President Bush.
Obama's friends on the left and independents are having a hard time with Obama sending in reinforcements, even with the built-in end game. This may mean it will be harder for Obama to keep his base mobilized at a time he is trying to rally support for his most significant domestic initiative, revamping the health-care system.
Take the statement from Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.): "I consider myself one of the president's men. But, I'm deeply skeptical about his plan. I hope and want to be convinced that it will work ... I'm keeping my fingers crossed and my mind open. For in the end, America's strength and security is at stake.''
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) was blunt in his disagreement: "I do not support the president's decision to send additional troops to fight a war in Afghanistan that is no longer in our national security interest. It's an expensive gamble to undertake armed nation-building on behalf of a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy."
He was "disappointed" Obama did not set a strict deadline for bailing out. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called for Democrats and Republicans to rally behind the Obama plan but faulted it for including the July 2011 start of a rolling withdrawal.
I think Obama's speech demonstrated to the progressives who gave him support when he needed it the most -- for his 2004 Illinois Senate race, his early presidential primary days -- that he shares their goals. He may not share their tactics.