Tom Shales on Obama's ominous West Point speech

President Obama announced that he wants to send 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan by the middle of next year and start withdrawing American forces from the country by July 2011.
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Would you buy a used war from this man? Americans might be seeing their bright, young president in a dark, new light this morning after watching his televised speech Tuesday night centering on escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

President Obama delivered the 35-minute address before 4,200 sharply turned-out cadets in the Eisenhower Hall of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It was a telegenic setting for a telegenic president -- and yet, arguably, a strange and incongruous one, considering the tone and substance of his 2008 presidential campaign.

The White House had spilled out details of the speech all day, so there weren't going to be any surprises in terms of content. When Obama announced that "as commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan," it was entirely anticlimactic. The surge and its size had been part of the national conversation for hours.

But if the speech had a familiar ring -- an eerily familiar ring -- perhaps Obama thought that with his superior powers as a speechmaker and television presence, he could sway American hearts and minds more effectively than did his predecessor -- even if Obama's message on Afghanistan might have sounded awfully similar to President George W. Bush's on Iraq.

Just like Bush, Obama made sure to make a conspicuous reference to the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, but Obama said its perpetrators came from Afghanistan, not Iraq.

Could it be that Obama, who made liberal use of the personal pronoun, enjoys setting up lofty challenges for himself so as to seem amazing should they be achieved -- the challenge Tuesday night being to persuade a viewing nation, suffering from a ruinous recession, to support an escalated and expensive war in the Mideast.

Obama is said to have great confidence in his popularity and in the degree to which the electorate loves him. Some supporters as well as detractors must be wondering, after watching the West Point performance, whether he's overestimating that affection -- and whether he's due for the proverbial rude awakening.

Immediately after the speech, commentators and pundits started wrestling over its content and delivery, and debating whether Obama had scored another victory for himself.

Called upon afterward by CBS News anchor Katie Couric, veteran correspondent Bob Schieffer said the speech might prove to be "the defining moment of the Obama presidency" -- all while a militaristic rallying cry may have seemed atypical and out of character.

Schieffer also noted that Obama "always" makes a "very eloquent" presentation, so that was no surprise.

It was the night Obama "took command of the Afghan war," Schieffer said. The correspondent added that even if the troop escalation is a smart move, announcing in advance an 18-month time frame -- after which the servicemen and women will come home -- could be folly.

"I just don't understand the logic of how that works," Schieffer said.

On NBC, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama's 2008 presidential opponent, was making a similar point to anchor Brian Williams. "I do support it," he said of the troop surge. But McCain also said that Obama is "sending the wrong signal" when announcing "that we are leaving on an arbitrary date."

And on PBS, anchor Jim Lehrer said: "This will always be known as the Obama speech at West Point." That didn't sound like breathtaking insight, yet it might prove an apt prediction.

Perhaps Dec. 1, 2009, will become known as the night the Obama honeymoon ended decisively -- largely because a great communicator placed too much faith in his own powers of persuasion and his celebrated mastery of a medium.

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