Notes from a briefing room press insider…
7-’11: The point that WH senior administration officials had predicted would be the most “misunderstood” of POTUS’s Afghan address was the focus of many a question in the briefing room. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs identified the July 2011 date as a “transition point” that ensures the Afghans must make progress, and he used the word “incentivize” more than once to describe how this strategy is expected to affect Afghan performance. Fighting the popular criticism that this date-setting might encourage the enemy, RG said it was “highly illogical” that critics were complaining that the Taliban would retreat until that date and then attempt a return. This, RG said, would give us “space” to train Afghan forces to secure such territories. Predictably swearing against engaging in hypotheticals about July 2011 conditions, RG simplified: “A conditions-based drawdown will begin in July of 2011.” And in response to the Defense Secy’s testimony this morning where Gates noted that POTUS could change his mind, RG said he wouldn’t disagree with that (but that the focus should be on POTUS’s words). On offense, he noted that at the end of the two years between summers 2009 and 2011 we will essentially see “triple the resources” in the war.
Happy Holidays to All: The gloomy weather was not confined to the outdoors, as several exchanges today indicated a tense mood in the post-POTUS address briefing. For the third time this week, RG compared a reporter’s temperament to that of his six-year-old son, and twice today he questioned the importance of reporters’ queries. “I’m going to get back to weightier topics,” he said as things heated up over Salahi-gate. “Can we get onto something semi-pertinent?” he asked as Bloomberg’s Hans Nichols and Fox’s Major Garrett asked why the Chamber of Commerce might not be invited to tomorrow’s jobs summit. On the topic of Rumsfeld criticism of war strategy, RG said to ABC’s Jake Tapper, “You go to war with the Secretary of Defense you have, Jake,” to which an agitated Tapper replied: “That’s cute. The question, though….” (There was clarification here that the Obama team’s primary “underresourced war” argument is focused on the 2008 requests — not during Rumsfeld’s term in office — that they say they inherited when their predecessors did not okay them.)
The Poll-tergeist: Faced with the challenge of selling this war to an American public with decidedly mixed feelings, RG said POTUS believes it’s “important to talk to the American people” about why we’re there, what we want to achieve, and when we might leave. CBS’s Chip Reid asked whether POTUS still believes, as he told Reid in an interview, that the American people’s support is needed to wage war. A lengthy discussion on polling ensued, with RG assuring that POTUS “doesn’t call his pollster in to make a policy decision.” But RG said twice that the strategy pitch is not a “one-shot deal.”