WASHINGTON – The switchboards and e-mail inboxes of members of Congress are not seeing much of a surge from President Barack Obama's plan to send more U.S. troops into Afghanistan.
Healthcare and Wall Street bailouts? Those issues light up the phones and get the digital juices flowing.
But lawmakers from across the political spectrum say their constituents seem to be too war-weary or preoccupied with matters at home to be making their voices heard in large numbers on Obama's troop increase.
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The tepid response is a marked difference from three years ago, when President George W. Bush's decision to send more troops into a bogged-down Iraq war roiled the Capitol for months and prompted widespread protests.
"I think people are distracted, rightfully so, with economic issues," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus and the only lawmaker to vote against the original Afghanistan war authorization in 2001. "It's a very desperate situation. People are losing their health care and their jobs."
Obama announced that he will send 30,000 additional troops into the war, now in its ninth year, and set a timeline for starting troop withdrawals in July 2011. The increase will put U.S. troop strength at about 100,000 — nearly three times more than when Obama took office.
The public's muted reaction is being mirrored by Congress. There's an air of resignation among lawmakers and little talk of trying to block or make significant changes to Obama's plan. Even liberals who disagree with the president have measured their criticisms, while conservatives who support a troop buildup were left with little choice but to go along.
Rep. John Simkus, R-Ill., a West Point graduate, surveyed his constituents in his weekly newsletter. He heard back from 117, of whom 85 said they supported Obama's decision.
Lawmakers said the calls they're getting have been mixed, with the most vocal commentary coming from critics of Obama's plan.
Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn, who represents a large military constituency around Colorado Springs, Colo., reported getting about a dozen calls immediately following the president's speech. The most consistent message was, "Don't get us involved in another Vietnam," said Lamborn spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen.
Charles Tatje, 58, a mushroom grower in Fountain, Colo., called Lamborn to say Obama was "trying to walk the middle of the road and appease everybody."
He criticized the president for not fulfilling an initial recommendation from generals for about 40,000 troops.
"You wouldn't give a building contractor 75 percent of the materials he needs and then tell him to get the job done," Tatje said.
Tom Cooper, 68, a retired aerospace consultant whose son and daughter-in-law are Army officers who have served in Afghanistan, also called Lamborn's office to say the president "would be better off to bring everybody home" rather than to send fewer troops than initially recommended.
Cooper said he believes Obama also gave the Taliban too much information by setting a timeline for troop withdrawals.
Janis Traven of Seattle, who described herself as a community organizer and political activist, said she called Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott's office to stand by him for his opposition to the troop increase.
"I have a terrible sinking feeling about the likelihood of success," said Traven, 57.
Just three people called the office of Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill. Two were against the troop increase and one for it. The office received eight e-mails calling for troops to come home. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., got 61 calls and e-mails, his office said, about a quarter of the volume it received on health care reform over the same time.
Lee and another leading war critic, Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., said they weren't interpreting the lack of an outcry as a sign of support. Lee pointed to polls such as one by the Pew Research Center that found just 32 percent of respondents favored sending more troops into Afghanistan, while 40 percent wanted fewer.
It's not as if people aren't paying attention. Nearly 41 million people watched Obama's speech on Tuesday, his largest audience since he addressed a joint session of Congress on health care on Feb. 24, according to Nielsen Co.
"I think there's a deep concern about what our policy is over there," McGovern said. "People do not want to get sucked deeper into this war. They just don't quite know how to deal with it."
Still, lawmakers said the war — started shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that were plotted on Afghan soil and carried out by al-Qaida — has a different dynamic than the Iraq conflict.
Obama played up the 9/11 connection to Afghanistan in his speech, although he did not mention Osama bin Laden by name. He also appears to have quelled some criticism by proposing the troop withdrawal timeline, although administration officials have since acknowledged that there is no fixed date for withdrawals.
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