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A taxing time for Obama: From Ebola to Islamic extremists to Ukraine in quick succession

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TAMPA, Florida — Underscoring the multiple challenges facing his administration, President Barack Obama is consulting with military officials about the U.S. counterterrorism campaign against Islamic State militants, just a day after boosting the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Obama is spending two days away from Washington to meet with the generals and the scientists charged with carrying out missions against two distinct national security threats, both of which are costing lives and threatening regional stability.

On Wednesday, Obama plans to visit U.S. Central Command in Tampa, which oversees U.S. military efforts in the Middle East. The visit comes at a sensitive time in the planning against Islamic State militants, with a number of Western and Arab allies struggling to determine how to assist in the fight.

The president is then returning to the capital for a meeting Thursday with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, drawing attention to tensions with Russia in yet another foreign cauldron.

In three high-profile days, Obama is seeking to display resolve amid lingering questions about how quickly he has responded to crises and whether his deliberative approach has allowed military, diplomatic and public health hot spots to flare up.

Wednesday's appearance at Central Command came as Congress, in rare accelerated fashion, prepared to vote on Obama's request for authority to equip and train Syrian opposition fighters whom the administration deems as moderates in the Syrian civil war. Obama, determined not to deploy U.S. combat troops against Islamic State militias, wants to use military airstrikes to weaken the extremists and rely on Iraqi and Kurdish forces and the Syrian opposition to carry out the fight on the ground.

The nation's top military official, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, introduced a qualification to Obama's plan, telling Congress on Tuesday that if it became necessary for U.S. military advisers to accompany Iraqi troops into combat he might "go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of ground forces." Dempsey stressed that he didn't believe such a step was necessary now.

The White House, however, remained firm about Obama's view. "What he's been very specific and precise about is that he will not deploy ground troops in a combat role into Iraq or Syria," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in response to Dempsey's comments.

In Tampa, Obama planned to meet with Gen. Lloyd Austin, who will oversee the military campaign against the Islamic State group as the head of Central Command, and other military officers to discuss operational details. He also planned to meet with representatives from the countries that fall within the responsibility of the Central Command to highlight his desire for an international coalition to take on the fight.

PHOTO: President Barack Obama greets members of the military upon his arrival on Air Force One at MacDill Air Force Base, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014. Obama will spend the night in Tampa and tomorrow morning he will receive a briefing at US Central Command about the ongoing military campaigns in Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama greets members of the military upon his arrival on Air Force One at MacDill Air Force Base, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014. Obama will spend the night in Tampa and tomorrow morning he will receive a briefing at US Central Command about the ongoing military campaigns in Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was expected to join Obama, who was scheduled to make public remarks following his consultations.

While one is distinctly military and the other medical, Obama's challenges in the Middle East and Africa bear uncanny similarities. In both instances he has been accused of being slow to recognize a threat, and now he is responding with ramped-up efforts in both cases. He also has been pressured to offer reassurances that the primary threats rest abroad and that the risks to the United States are low.

Still, he has described the danger both present in stark terms.

Islamic State fighters are "unique in their brutality," he said last week as he made references to slayings of prisoners, enslavement and rape of women and the beheadings of two American journalists. Likewise, Ebola, he declared, is now an epidemic "of the likes that we have not seen before.

"It's spiraling out of control. It is getting worse. It's spreading faster and exponentially," he said.

In both cases he has issued a call for international action, warning that the threat of regional instability could spread. To confront the Islamic State militants, Obama has said he is relying on the U.S.'s military, its diplomats and its allies. Confronting Ebola on Tuesday, he had his national security team alongside top officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Declaring a "national security priority," he said: "We're working this across our entire government, which is why today I'm joined by leaders throughout my administration, including from my national security team."

It was about the fight against Ebola, but it could have been about the Islamic State threat just as well.


Reach Jim Kuhnhenn on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jkuhnhenn

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