Colin Powell turns up again as Obama's special adviser

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 1, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Colin Powell's got President Barack Obama's back — again.

Visiting the White House on Wednesday to talk with Obama about his work on high-school dropout prevention, the Republican former secretary of state and retired four-star general also joined the weakened Democratic president in urging Senate Republicans to quit stalling and vote for a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.

"I fully support this treaty," Powell said of the New START treaty. He said it was key to verifying Russian arsenals and furthering U.S. foreign policy goals and would "in no way" constrain U.S. missile defense capabilities. Powell said he and other Republican former secretaries of state had co-written a pro-treaty essay that will appear in The Washington Post, adding, "I hope that the Senate will move quickly."

It was the latest gesture of counsel and friendship by Powell to Obama since the 73-year-old statesman crossed party lines in 2008 to endorse Obama for president. In the two years since, Powell has regularly made himself available to Obama as an adviser and sounding board on everything from education, fiscal policy and domestic politics to Iran, North Korea and the war in Afghanistan.

On war policy in particular, Powell has credentials that Obama does not: a 35-year career in the Army and stints across four presidencies as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, national security adviser and secretary of state.

Much of Powell's advice is given behind closed doors — and remains private. Online visitor logs show at least eight previous visits by Powell to the White House since Obama took office.

The president thanked Powell publicly on Wednesday for his friendship and service to the country. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama seeks Powell's advice "on a regular basis."

Publicly, Powell's assessment of Obama's job performance has been mostly laudatory. He's also served as a defender of the president's character.

He told CNN's Larry King last month that Obama had done "a good job" in aspects of Iraq and Afghanistan and in trying to further Middle East peace negotiations. On NBC's "Meet the Press" earlier this year, Powell chastised the so-called "birther" movement, saying it was clear that Obama was born in the United States and that he's Christian, not Muslim. Powell surmised that the smears had gained currency because of anger over the bad economy.

At times, though, Powell has made some criticism public.

After Democrats' election losses last month, he told CNN that the president should have focused more on the economy "to the exclusion of almost everything else" on the domestic agenda, including health care and energy policy. He also said Obama and his team had botched their communications message on the economy and jobs. Months into Obama's presidency Powell said that Obama was trying to accomplish too much.

Having Powell in his corner probably helps bolster the president with centrist voters from both parties. Seventy percent of Americans hold favorable views of Powell — and just 17 percent hold unfavorable views — according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll last year.

But it's not clear that Powell can be a magic bullet on New START against Republicans who appear to be holding it hostage at least for an extension of Bush-era tax cuts and perhaps for more leverage on military spending.

Powell's a moderate Republican who's increasingly chafed conservatives in recent years as he's gone public with trepidations over the Iraq war and some Bush-era stances toward terrorism suspects, and as he's expressed support for gays serving openly in the military.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he liked Powell personally and that "you can't ignore a man who's been at the top levels of the military, diplomacy and government.

"On the other hand, there are some who feel he's gone too far in support of President Obama." And despite Powell's pitch for New START, Hatch maintained Wednesday that "I'd have a rough time voting on it now."

Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who studies presidents, said Powell's support for the treaty was "a little bit like getting an endorsement from your uncle" because it was so predictable. What would help Obama more, he said, is the backing of "someone who'd normally be opposed to it, providing political cover for others."

Baker said Powell was probably most valuable to Obama for his private advice: "It's the substantive wisdom that he can bring the president."

(David Lightman contributed to this report.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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