Ann McFeatters - Clock is ticking on White House mice

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"OMG!," said the White House mice recently. "Our time is running out!"

("Mice" is among the nicest terms used to refer to the aides who scurry around to think up ways the president and first lady might promote their agendas. Think HBO's VEEP without the laugh track.)

The mice calculated that with only two and a half more years in office, President Obama and Michelle Obama should get cracking on restarting their to-do lists.

Thus, Michelle Obama came out swinging at congressional Republicans for daring to try to block her efforts to promote more healthful food in school lunches. You know, broccoli and granola bars and salads instead of fried chicken, sodas and brownies. "The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids' health," she warned.

Now, this is a huge debate, every bit as heated as the Reagan administration's attempt to have ketchup count as a vegetable in school lunches.

Michelle's supporters argue that the nation has too many obese children who will grow up to be unhealthy, unproductive, costly adults, and that training children to eat good, nourishing food instead of junk will pay off in the future.

Her opponents claim she has messed up the school lunch program by making it more costly (fresh costs more than processed) and by causing a million fewer children to eat sugarless, soda-less, fried-less lunch at school. They say too much food is being wasted because children are throwing away their vegetables.

Instead of wisely keeping their heads down on this one and suggesting schools buy more ketchup (children eat anything with ketchup on it), Republicans in Congress, ever eager to get in a fight with an Obama, are backing the misnamed School Nutrition Association. The SNA is lobbying to scale back the more-fruits-and-vegetables, fewer-calories regulations still being phased in and the law signed by the president in 2010. The SNA lobby wants the regulations to be more flexible and permit waivers to schools struggling to buy more healthful food.

Obama supporters counter that without alternatives such as junk-food vending machines, children will learn to eat better and insist this is already happening. But there are powerful interests, as usual, aligned on this, and the East Wing of the White House may well lose.

Meanwhile, over in the West Wing, the mice are worried about Obama's foreign policy legacy. As he boasts of ending the war in Iraq and promising to bring combat troops home from Afghanistan by year's end, Obama is being pummeled daily by Republicans complaining he's not forceful enough. Although the costs of the wars and caring for the injured are nearing the trillion dollar mark (not yet paid for), some lawmakers are clamoring for troops to stay in Afghanistan and be sent to Syria, Ukraine, Libya and Iran, among other places even though the Pentagon is supposedly scaling down.

For heaven's sakes, complains Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., leading hawk, the U.S. kept troops in Korea for decades after the war ended (28,500 are still there and the U.S. just sent 800 more plus 40 tanks). McCain says the Taliban will just keep hiding in Pakistan until American combat troops are gone from Afghanistan; Obama says the Afghans need to be on notice they're responsible for their own security by 2015.

At West Point's commencement, Obama said the U.S. will engage militarily to protect this country and its allies but that protecting the peace is a multilateral job. "Just because we have the best hammer doesn't mean every problem is a nail," he said, waxing unusually poetic.

Nonetheless, added the president who ordered the surge in Afghanistan, the United States "must always lead on the world stage," and the military is the "backbone" of that leadership.

In other words, if and when it's time to go to war again, Obama will know it even if nobody else does. Meanwhile, the hawks can go sit on their branches and be quiet.

Clearly, the mice have more work to do.

(Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.)

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