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Obama, Superman on national security?

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
  • Gloria Borger: Obama strategy is to claim mantle of national security hawk
  • She says killing of bin Laden and impact of surge help Obama's cause
  • Huge U.S. debt and deficit are hurting support for wars, she says
  • Borger: Obama's key problem is economy and there the mission isn't accomplished

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is chief political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°," "John King, USA," and "State of the Union."

Washington (CNN) -- After George W. Bush famously strode onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003 in front of a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," there's no way a politician would emulate that now-derided photo op. Arrogant, self-assured and -- most of all -- wrong, it's a place no leader wants to find himself.

Yet leaders also need to figure out ways to project an aura of strength and prove real success, especially with an election around the corner. It's hard for Barack Obama, with a $1.5 trillion deficit and 9.1% unemployment, to make the case that the economy is truly back on track. It's impossible, with the U.S. about to hit its debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion, to claim that spending is under control.

So is it really possible to claim success in Afghanistan?

"Yes," says a senior administration official. "And that's why the president is going to do what he said he would do." It was 18 months ago at West Point that the president -- after an arduous Afghanistan review that played out publicly -- announced his 30,000-troop surge. It was, he told us, "the resources we need to seize the initiative." The goals: Diminish al Qaeda, reverse the momentum of the Taliban, and strengthen Afghanistan's security forces.

On Wednesday night, the president will say that's exactly what we did, so the surge forces can start coming home. Not quite "mission accomplished" -- but something like, as I was told, "things went better than some people thought." Which, of course, means that Osama bin Laden is dead.

It's tricky, but there's a new political formulation on the horizon, and the White House is trying to figure out a way to capture it: With many Republicans shying away from intervention, can Obama transform himself into the national security leader?

The thinking goes this way: "The president runs as the responsible daddy in national security, who understands it, killed Osama bin Laden, got us out of Iraq, and turned around a disaster in Afghanistan," posits Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, who advised the administration during the last Afghanistan review. "It's a strong case to make to independent voters. This president can be the safe hand."

One senior White House official repeatedly referred to Obama's "steadiness" as a leader. "Here's a guy people said, 'what does this community organizer know about the military and foreign affairs?'" Now, this official continues, "we are steady and they [the Republicans] are all over the place."

Afghanistan troop withdrawal impact
Finding Superman isn't easy, especially when you can't pay the bills.
--Gloria Borger

White House advisers figure they are on their way to removing what one called a "vulnerability" for Democrats. If that's true, it would be a complete reversal of decades of the Democrats as the soft-on-national-security party. With Republicans governed by the green-eyeshade, no-spending-on-anything-foreign set, there's an opportunity to project strength -- with bin Laden's death as Exhibit A. "We're aware the political sands are shifting in an unprecedented way," says an administration source.

One reason: We're broke. And that points to the president's own vulnerability.

Finding Superman isn't easy, especially when you can't pay the bills. What, for example, is the plan for the 70,000 troops in Afghanistan who will remain after the surge force is withdrawn but are supposed to leave by 2014?

Will the president's decision to just withdraw surge forces in the near future keep his own party -- or the neo-isolationists in the GOP -- happy? "Republicans will be really divided on this," says one GOP strategist. "By and large, the party is now being driven by the budget hawks, not the war hawks."

When the president spoke at West Point in December 2009, he bowed to the military hawks. This time, he's looking more closely at the calendar and the political environment. Fifty-six percent of the nation disapproves of the war. And many of the GOP presidential candidates sound suspiciously like don't-get-involved-anywhere Ron Paul these days. The operating theory: No dollar spent abroad is well spent.

And Obama has always had this added problem: He's been prosecuting wars that have no anchor of support in his own party. And now the support in the GOP -- save for John McCain and Co.-- has evaporated. "There's no such thing as a good spending program abroad," says one GOP strategist. "It's stunning."

All of which brings us to another huge question the president needs to answer: What's the strategy for Pakistan? There's still that $3 billion in aid to a nation that, by the look of it, was complicit in hiding Osama bin Laden. Who wants to pay that bill? And how can the president convince the public -- and the Congress -- we ought to do it?

The president will claim success in Afghanistan -- along with the national security leadership mantle. But there's a slight problem: The surge may be ending, but the war is still on, in one form or another.

And no one wants to pay for the "war of necessity," as Obama once called Afghanistan. The irony is obvious: Just as a Democrat establishes national security cred, the nation is focused elsewhere. The only mission voters are focusing on is the one at home. And it's far from accomplished.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

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