Obama's mission: Pivoting from the war

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; 9:09 AM

The president's first problem was that the timing was off.

I know that Aug. 31 was the official date for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq. But since the last such troops actually pulled out a couple of weeks ago -- an event chronicled for hours by MSNBC, with the Pentagon's help -- the moment seems to have passed. Everyone did their whither-Iraq stories at the time. So the Oval Office address seems a beat behind the facts on the ground.

The president's second problem was that Americans aren't focused on Iraq right now.

That might be unfair. The bloody war consumed our politics for so long. Barack Obama said he was going to pull out all but 50,000 soldiers, who would remain in an advisory and training role, and he did. Had he failed to do so, he would have gotten killed politically.

But the public is worried mainly about the lousy economy these days, and Iraq is now an afterthought. The media have zeroed in on Afghanistan. So Obama doesn't get much thanks.

The president's third problem is that he can't exactly declare victory. Violence continues in Iraq, which -- as you may have noticed -- has been unable to form a government for five months. So it's hard to make the country feel good about a situation that, at best, remains a muddle.

The president's fourth problem is that he opposed the Bush surge that made the pullout possible. You can blame the former president for launching an unnecessary war based on a false premise, but the Petraeus strategy, launched in 2007 when Bush was quite unpopular, did succeed to a large extent.

How did Obama handle all of this rhetorically? He mentioned the "long and painful recession" in the fourth sentence. He said Bush had started the war and the war was bad. He promised to end the combat mission, the president said, and he did. Then he praised Bush as part of his effort to "turn the page" -- patriots can disagree, after all -- but didn't mention the surge.

Soon Obama was pivoting to what Democrats really want him to talk about: the economy. The $1 trillion spent on war over the past decade hurt us at home. Now he wants a war on the recession, and for the government to help veterans. But with what ammunition?

On the plus side, the speech was short and crisp, avoiding the onetime professor's tendency to go on and on.

The insta-reaction was telling. Fox News conservatives panned the speech, say Obama treats Iraq as a distraction from the business of remaking America. On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow was miffed that he let the malefactors who launched the war off the hook.

NBC's Richard Engel summed it up: "There was no mention of democracy. . . . Instead it was, let's move on as a nation."

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