The meeting -- the first of a series of sessions -- took place in the Situation Room as the White House fended off charges that the president has been stalling on Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for more troops.
Obama will not make any decision on an Afghan strategy for at least a few weeks, the White House announced Wednesday night. Obama will reportedly meet again with his national security team to discuss Afghanistan and Pakistan on Oct. 7.
Wednesday's closed-door meeting marked the first time the president has had any interaction with McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, since the general made the request for up to 40,000 troops.
Obama spent three hours meeting with staff, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The official says no decisions about increased troop levels were discussed; instead, the group focused on what the goals in that war-torn country should be.
The president has met with McChrystal only once since he took command of U.S. and NATO forces over the summer -- a lack of contact that has fueled critics who say Obama is being dismissive of McChrystal's needs.
But White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs fired back at the critics Wednesday, saying lawmakers like Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. -- who accused Obama of jeopardizing American troops by not acting quickly on his top Afghanistan commander's request -- are more interested in playing politics than forging a responsible war strategy.
"I think the political climate seems to be affecting what people say on cable television," Gibbs said. "And I would say this to Congressman Cantor and everybody else: The American people deserve an assessment that's beyond game playing."
The White House and other officials insist that the president is obligated to decide on a firm policy before weighing in on whether to send thousands more troops into the battlefield.
"The men and women that might be sent to Afghanistan to serve and protect our freedom deserve that, as do their families and every other American," Gibbs said.
Among those who had been expected to attend Wednesday's strategy meeting were Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, Central Command's Gen. David Petraeus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones and other top officials, as well as McChrystal.
There reportedly is a division in the administration between a faction that wants to act on McChrystal's recommendations and those who favor a new strategy of using Special Forces and unmanned drone aircraft for tactical strikes on the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership -- a move that would require much more U.S. action in Pakistan.
McChrystal warned that the mission in Afghanistan could fail without more troops in his Aug. 30 classified assessment, which was followed by the troop request.
Gibbs acknowledged Tuesday that Obama had not spoken with McChrystal since the assessment, though he reads daily memos from him and Gen. Ray Odierno, who leads U.S. forces in Iraq, and meets regularly with Gates and Mullen.
Wednesday's strategy session provided a chance for McChrystal to explain personally to Obama why he's asked for more resources.
Gibbs said the president is not going to make a "political decision," despite pressure from some Republicans to move quickly and from some Democrats to scale back.
NATO's secretary-general has backed up the White House decision to take a deliberative approach to the request.
"It's premature to make any judgment as far as resources is concerned," Anders Fogh Rasmussen told FOX News.
But Obama has faced concerns, particularly from Republicans, that he is dragging his feet on meeting McChrystal's needs.
Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said Wednesday in response to Gibbs that the Virginia Republican still hopes Obama will stand by his "original commitment" to the war and believes he'll reach the "right decision."
"When President Obama said that the mission in Afghanistan was a war of necessity, Mr. Cantor was one of the first to support him," Dayspring said. "The fact is that our commanders in the field have conveyed a clear sense of urgency that a timely decision by the commander-in-chief could ultimately determine the success or failure of the mission. Mr. Gibbs knows that."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told FOX News that the president should "act quickly" on the request.
"We learned ... in Iraq, when we put more troops in, the people trusted us," he said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama's Republican opponent in last year's election, also argued for the president to approve a call for additional troops.
If Obama fails to do so, it would "put the United States in much greater danger, because failure in Afghanistan" would run the risk of the nation turning into a base for attacks on the U.S. and its allies, McCain said on ABC's "Good Morning America.".
There are 68,000 troops in Afghanistan now, the result of a build-up authorized by Obama earlier in the year.
The Obama White House has said repeatedly that the president would consider McChrystal's recommendations, and those of other advisers, carefully and methodically before announcing his next move. Obama has said the goal of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is to disrupt, dismantle and destroy the Al Qaeda terrorist network and its sympathizers.
"Time is not on our side," McCain said, "so we need a decision pretty quickly. I think history is pretty clear that when the Taliban took over, it became a base for attacks on the United States and our allies."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.