Where will military issues rank in new administration?
January 20, 2009
WASHINGTON — When President-elect Barack Obama officially begins his duties as president on Tuesday, military issues won’t be at the top of his list.
Barring a major new security risk or military failure, the proposed economic stimulus plan is expected to dominate most of the White House’s attention in coming weeks.
Obama’s transition team still lists "ending the war in Iraq" as the second priority on its Web site, but nearly all his recent news conferences have focused on the failures in the auto industry, job losses and other dismal economic indicators.
But whether that’s bad news for troops isn’t clear, experts say.
"When you’re looking at what will be an administration’s focus, it’s not an all or nothing issue," said Brandice Canes-Wrone, a Princeton University politics professor who focuses on public opinion and the presidency.
"But if the economy is the main focus, maybe there is less pressure to stick to any time frame to withdraw from Iraq. Maybe both the successes and setbacks in Afghanistan stay off the front page. Maybe it affects the extent to what military spending should be."
Still a priorityRegardless, Canes-Wrone and military experts said they see the services remaining a central issue for the Obama administration, even with the shift in public attention.
He enters office as only the second president in the last 63 years with no previous military experience. The other was Bill Clinton, whose early mishandling of the issue of gays in the ranks resulted in a strained relationship between him and the military for much of his term.
John Burke, author of several books on presidential transitions, said he thinks Obama has learned from those mistakes.
"Part of it is the personnel he picked — (Robert) Gates as Secretary of Defense and (James) Jones at the National Security Council," he said. "But this administration also seems more respectful of the military, whether it be just because we’re a nation at war or because they understand the value of military advice."
"The climate and culture within the White House towards the military will be different (than Clinton)."
In fact, last month the Cato Institute’s Christopher Preble lamented that Obama hasn’t shifted enough away from Bush policies and attitudes on the military, potentially undercutting his message of change.
At least in the short term most key defense leadership positions will remain filled with Bush appointees or other long-established personnel from the Pentagon, he said.
Moving slow with major shifts in foreign policy or defense planning may help ease the pain of changes, but also likely means a slower withdrawal from Iraq than anti-war groups want.
Power sharingJeffrey Cohen, political science professor at Fordham University and vice president of the Presidency Research Group, said a president’s focus on domestic issues can also mean larger roles for Cabinet members dealing with other areas.
"So as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s weight in decisions may have increased a bit," he said. "In those times presidents make sure they keep the line, but also give them a freer hand at accomplishing foreign policy goals."
Gates might see similar leeway in guiding military decisions, becoming a stronger adviser to a distracted president. But Canes-Wrone said military policy, especially in wartime, reflects the president’s priority.
"The president, on military issues, is much less receptive to public opinion than other issues," she said. "And presidents can lead public opinion on that, up to a point."
The incoming president has already announced support for ending the military’s ban on gays serving openly in the ranks, and vowed to close down detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
But those issues are expected to take months or years to resolve, experts said. Obama’s first major military policy decisions will likely come in February, when the administration unveils its 2010 budget and defense spending priorities.