President Barack Obama turns his attention on Wednesday to America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, shifting gears now that his $825 billion economic stimulus plan appeared certain to win approval in the House of Representatives.
Obama held a White House meeting, nevertheless, with a group of business CEOs to shore up backing for economic rescue program. The economy has dominated the government agenda since Obama was sworn in last week amid the worst American economic downturn in since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
"These are people who make things, who hire people," Obama said. "They are on the front lines in seeing the enormous problems in our economy right now. Their ideas and their concerns have helped to shape our recovery package."
Asked if he was confident he would get Republican support, Obama said: "I'm confident we're going to get it passed." At the Pentagon, Obama was to hear the opinions of the four US military service chiefs in a next step toward fulfilling his promise to withdraw all American combat troops from Iraq within 16 months. The chiefs are among those in the Defense Department hierarchy who have expressed misgivings about the impact that long, repeated war tours in Iraq and Afghanistan have had on the US military. The chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president's senior uniformed military advisers, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will joint the afternoon meeting. "The president has laid down the test of ensuring that he hears specifically from both those on the ground and in the region before he makes decisions on our force posture going forward," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said on Tuesday. "He looks forward to going over there and to listening to what they have to say." Obama pledged during his campaign to remove all combat troops from Iraq by May 2010. However, he has said he would consult with military commanders first and adjust his timeline if sticking to it would risk the safety of U.S. troops remaining behind to train Iraqis and fight al-Qaida or cause backsliding in Iraqi stability. Obama wants to shift the Pentagon's focus so that troubled Afghanistan becomes the top military priority, by increasing the troop presence there as the US footprint in Iraq grows smaller. Gibbs said Gates has set a goal of putting Obama "in front of the all the people that are involved in these decisions and all the people that are involved in committing the lives of men and women in our uniform" to help the president make his decision about troop levels.
On the economic crisis, Obama has worked hard to win support in both parties for the $825 billion measure that would be the largest ever to move through Congress. While it was expected to move easily through the House of Representatives, where the Democrats hold a large majority, Obama appeared to have been unable in meetings Tuesday to persuade many Republicans to support the plan, which he had sought to make good on campaign promises to avoid partisan gridlock.
Senate committees were working on a separate version of the measure that enjoyed only slightly more support from Republicans in the upper chamber. Congressional leaders have promised Obama they would send him the measure by mid-February.
The increasingly troublesome economy _ and the federal government's response to it _ is the first major test of Obama's presidency; how he handles the volatile situation, and the effect of his stimulus package on the economy, could well set the tone for his first year in office, if not his entire term.
He is casting the measure as the first step toward turning around the moribund economy while laying the foundation for long-term objectives, like developing alternative energy sources and rebuilding the country's highways.
"The statistics every day underscore the urgency of the economic situation. The American people expect action," Obama said after closed-door meetings with Republicans in Congress on Tuesday. Republicans are trying to regroup after the November elections, in which they lost the White House as well as seats in both houses of Congress. While some conservatives seem eager to mount a frontal attack on Obama and his plans, others are pursuing a strategy of criticizing congressional Democrats rather than the president. House Minority Leader John Boehner, while declining to say how he thought Wednesday's vote would turn out, emphasized anew that Republican members are worried about billions in domestic spending that "has nothing to do with creating jobs or preserving jobs." "We're for more than just cutting taxes," Boehner said on ABC television. But he also said Republican lawmakers believe that Democratic spending policies would bury the next generation of Americans under "a mountain of debt."
The House measure includes about $550 billion in spending and roughly $275 billion in tax cuts in hopes of spurring the economy and helping those directly affected. Much of the spending would be for items such as health care, jobless benefits and other programs that benefit victims of the downturn.