Obama shifts on cargo plane campaign pledge

President Barack Obama has backed away from a campaign pledge to invest in more military cargo planes.

On the campaign trail and shortly after he was sworn in as president, Obama pressed for investments in programs such as the C-17 cargo aircraft, calling it the “backbone of our ability to extend global power.”

He shifted his stance on the C-17 shortly after Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced in April that the Pentagon wants to stop buying the planes made by Chicago-based Boeing Co. All the references to the cargo plane were promptly removed from the White House’s new website.

Just after Obama’s inauguration, the White House website said: “We need greater investment in advanced technology ranging from the revolutionary, like

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and electronic warfare capabilities, to essential systems like the C-17 cargo and KC-X air refueling aircraft, which provide the backbone of our ability to extend global power.”

That statement echoed a similar statement Obama had on his campaign website.

Vice President Joe Biden, who as a senator from Delaware had Dover Air Force Base in his state, has also been a strong supporter for the Boeing cargo plane. Shortly before the presidential election, the two candidates updated their campaign website to make the case for systems such as the C-17 aircraft, “which may not be glamorous to politicians, but are the backbone of our future ability to extend global power.”

Obama has shifted to the other side of the debate as his administration — in particular Gates and the Office of Management and Budget — has pressed against additional congressional funding for the cargo planes and other programs seen as wasteful spending. The Pentagon did not request any funding for the planes in its 2010 budget request.

In a budget memo released in May, the OMB listed the termination of the C-17 program as part of a proposal to trim the 2010 spending by nearly $17 billion.

“The president clearly understood, from a strategic point of view, where Secretary Gates was trying to lead the department with this reform budget,” said

Geoff Morrell, Gates’s spokesman. “We can’t continue to be all things to all people. We have to allocate dollars based upon our current needs and future threats.

“We have more airlift than we require. We love the C-17. It is a fantastic aircraft.”

The White House did not comment by press time.

Obama has expended political capital and become closely involved in some fights over defense spending, but he has not personally threatened to veto defense bills over funding for the C-17s.

Obama wrote to lawmakers himself to threaten to veto bills over funding for the F-22 fighter jet earlier this summer. Obama dispatched senior administration officials, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Gates, to personally lobby senators for their votes against the F-22.

Obama won that fight after the Senate voted to curtail production of the F-22.

The C-17 fight so far has been left to Gates, who this week wrote a letter to lawmakers pushing against funding 10 more C-17s, worth $2.5 billion, in the 2010 defense-spending bill under debate on the Senate floor.

Senators said they haven’t felt pressure on the C-17.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who voted against new F-22 funding but has supported more C-17 planes, said it was the F-22 that became a symbol of unnecessary military spending for the administration, not the C-17.

“They clearly made the F-22 a line in the sand,” said Reed, an appropriator and senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Obama’s packed agenda — dominated by healthcare reform and a possible troop surge in Afghanistan — made it harder for him to stage a second full-court press on senators to strip military-plane funds, lobbyists said.

“In defense of the president, he’s got enough on his plate,” said Jim Dyer, an appropriations lobbyist at Clark & Weinstock and former Senate GOP appropriations staffer.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the Armed Services Committee chairman who worked with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Obama to strip the F-22 funds, said he had no problem with the Obama administration not making the same kind of lobbying effort on the C-17.

McCain has lead the fight in the Senate to strip the C-17 funds from the $636 billion defense bill and has called on Obama to threaten a veto over the issue, but Levin declined to endorse that view.

The White House has “to pick and choose their priorities,” said Levin, who on Tuesday spoke out against the funding for the C-17. “Otherwise, it kind of weakens the veto threat.”

The Senate on Wednesday night rejected McCain's amendment on a budgetary point of order. But McCain plans to try to strike the funds with other amendments.

McCain argues that spending $2.5 billion to produce 10 more of the Boeing aircraft would take money away from more pressing needs. The White House has said that the military’s current cargo fleet would meet the Pentagon’s airlift needs.

“It’s really outrageous,” McCain told reporters Wednesday. “They took money out of operations maintenance, which is our equipment, our personnel, all the things that are necessary that all the military leaders say are wearing out and need to be replaced.”

Boeing has strong congressional support for the C-17 across the country, as the program keeps 30,000 people employed in 43 states.

Gates has called for ending production once the last plane on order rolls off the Long Beach, Calif., assembly line in 2011. But for several years, Congress has funded about two dozen more C-17s, despite attempts by Pentagon officials to end production.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that stripping the funds could hurt the military’s effort in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the C-17, unlike the F-22, is currently being used.

“The C-17 has been essential to our combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as humanitarian missions worldwide,” she said. “It is the most flexible and versatile transport in the United States military today.”

Boeing has set up a website — c17foramerica.com — where it has gathered about 10,000 signatures from people in 48 states on a petition to keep the C-17 alive.