The politics of President Obama’s Iraq withdrawal decision

at 02:09 PM ET, 10/21/2011

President Obama’s lunchtime announcement that all American troops will be out of Iraq by year’s end will produce a series of political reverberations — some of which we know and some that, quite frankly, we don’t.


U.S. President Barack Obama announces the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in the briefing room of the White House in Washington October 21, 2011. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Here’s our look at the knowns and unknowns from Obama’s announcement today.

KNOWNS

* Promises made, promises kept: Over the past six weeks (or so), Obama’s message to the Democratic base has been clear: “I said I would do things when I ran for office and I have accomplished them.” (We are paraphrasing.) From health care to equal pay for women to the killing of Osama bin Laden, the president has emphasized that the promises he made in 2008 he has largely kept in his first term in office.

It’s not by accident then that Obama used the phrase “as promised” when declaring the end of the war in Iraq today. Senior White House officials confirm that the ending of military involvement in the country will be cast as yet another example of Obama saying what he means and meaning what he says.

“The President has kept his word to both end the war in Iraq and fight terrorism more effectively,” said Steve Murphy, a Democratic media consultant.

* A base bump: It’s no secret that the Democratic base is somewhere short of overly enthusiastic about the rapidly approaching 2012 election. As we have written many times, that enthusiasm gap — Republicans are quite passionate about voting next year — is a major problem for Obama and is behind his decision to rhetorically turn up the heat on Republicans over the past month and a half. “Today’s announcement marks the end of a war that should never have happened,” said Moveon.org’s executive director Justin Ruben, a sign of the general feeling among the liberal left about the end of the war.

Withdrawing troops from Iraq isn’t a panacea for Obama’s problems with a base who feel as though he led them down the primrose path in 2008. But it’s a step in the right direction for an incumbent who desperately needs his loyal supporters to get energized heading into next year’s election.

* Foreign policy won’t matter, leadership will: There’s little question that between the Arab Spring, the killing of bin Laden, the death of deposed Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi and now the news of the withdrawal of American troops in Iraq that this has been a momentous year in American foreign policy. And yet, the a recent Gallup poll showed just 2 percent of people thought terrorism was the most important issue facing the country, while anounce 2 percent said war was the most important. By contrast, the economy and unemployment were each above 30 percent.

While those numbers make clear that foreign policy will be on the backburner heading into 2012, it doesn’t mean that Obama’s successes internationally don’t matter. They do. Or at least might. They play into the idea of Obama as leader — as someone who can stand on the world stage and effectively represent the United States’ interests.

To be clear, Republicans are not likely to be swayed into supporting Obama by these successes. But independents who tend to vote less on a single issue — or issues — than on a general feel toward the individuals running for president may be.

UNKNOWNS

* Conditions on the ground: Making broad predictions of how major foreign policy/national security decisions will impact elections more than a year away is always a tough business.

Why? Because events on the ground can have such a large impact on how the public views a conflict and those events are, by their very nature, unpredictable.

Remember that the “smart vote” for Democrats eyeing a 2004 presidential run was in favor of the 2001 use of force resolution in Iraq. But, that very vote ultimately left then Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) vulnerable to a challenge in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary from then Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.)

What happens between now and the end of the year — a rise in violence? a peaceful transfer? — will matter for how today’s announcement ultimately plays out in next year’s general election.

* Republican reaction?: In the immediate aftermath of President Obama’s withdrawal announcement there was broad silence among the 2012 Republican contenders.

It seems likely that Republicans will seek to acknowledge the end of the war, offer as little public credit to Obama as possible and then return to talking about the economy.

But, politics is unpredictable. If Republican candidates — or the Republican base — decide to take issue with the pull-out then the issue could take a far different course in the primary fight to come.

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