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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."

"Addressing the nation for only the second time from the Oval Office," the L.A. Times says, "the president appealed for support from a country impatient for progress on unemployment and other economic woes and increasingly weary of wars, including the one in Afghanistan, which Obama has chosen to escalate."

USA Today says Obama had to avoid any replay of Mission Accomplished:

"The day required some delicate balancing by Obama, who is president in part because of his criticism of the war. His early opposition helped him win the Democratic nod over Hillary Rodham Clinton and trounce Republican John McCain in the 2008 election. Then, he decried Bush's stewardship of the war.

"On Tuesday, aboard Air Force One on the flight to Texas, he called Bush for a brief, private conversation in advance of the speech."

The Wall Street Journal notes that "Republicans marked the occasion by castigating those Democrats, including Mr. Obama, who had opposed the 2007 troop surge in Iraq and had called for a much earlier end to the war."

NYT says the commander-in-chief has a full plate of foreign policy challenges:

"President Obama is attempting a triple play this week that eluded his predecessors over the past two decades: simultaneous progress on the most vexing and violent problems in the Middle East -- Israeli-Palestinian peace, Iraq and Iran -- in hopes of creating a virtuous cycle in a region prone to downward spirals.

"History shouts that all the odds are against him. White House officials, eager to show concrete progress on the hardest foreign policy challenges at a time when Mr. Obama is struggling with a variety of domestic issues, contend that that the president has changed the political climate in all three arenas and has the best shot in years at creating positive and interlocking results."

The best shot in years, unfortunately, is still a crapshoot.

Does the Obama presidency make George W. Bush look better in retrospect? Slate's John Dickerson says Obama "is not consciously trying to improve the public's view of the Bush years. Indeed, he is actively reminding people of the mess he inherited from his predecessor. It is a key theme of the entire Democratic campaign. At the same time, as Obama demonstrates the natural limits of presidential action, he unwittingly adds perspective to assessments of what President Bush could do. As he benefits from policies he once opposed -- such as the surge in Iraq, which helped make tomorrow's speech possible -- Obama proves that even a smart politician with the best of intentions can be wrong. And as he champions making tough calls even in the face of popular opposition, he often sounds eerily like his predecessor.

"The relevant similarity between the federal response to Katrina and the BP oil spill (other than geography) is that both show the limits of the presidency and the federal government. Of course, a hurricane is different from an oil spill, and it's not necessary, for the purposes of comparison, to pass judgment on Bush's or Obama's response. The point is that from a purely logistical standpoint, it's hard to get the federal bureaucracy to move quickly. That's true whether you think the president is uniquely incompetent or a smart manager. A president weighing the benefits and costs of making a visit to the disaster area can catch similar grief for not taking command whether they're photographed in a plane or on a basketball court. And even an eloquent speaker can sound the wrong note."

In other words, governing is tough stuff.

Bashing Biden

Okay, so it's September and the recovery remains a mirage, but is it the veep's fault? Rich Lowry unloads:

"Joe Biden was an inspired choice as spokesman for the 'summer of recovery.'

"If the Obama administration wanted someone with little credibility to lose, who will say anything without a hint of shame or compunction, whose mouth habitually outruns the facts and common sense, it found its man.

"The vice president is still hawking his recovery summer, even as GDP growth slows to a crawl, and he'll still tout the marvels of the stimulus even if we dip into negative territory again later this year. He makes the late, great pitchman Billy Mays look restrained and rhetorically scrupulous by comparison. Biden is joined at the hip to the most disastrous White House shibboleth since President Gerald Ford's 'Whip Inflation Now.' "

This seems to me to be a real stretch for Lowry, whatever his distaste for the veep. Biden may be gaffe-prone, but what has he said about the stimulus that turned out to be wrong? And didn't two prominent economists just conclude that the legislation created nearly 3 million jobs?

Democrats on the run

More bad news for the Dems, as reported by Politico:

"Some of the Democratic Party's most endangered lawmakers are taking steps to distance themselves from Speaker Nancy Pelosi in an attempt to inoculate themselves from charges that they are beholden to the unpopular House leader and supportive of the ambitious national Democratic agenda.

"Three vulnerable Democrats from conservative-oriented districts are already running TV ads spotlighting their defiance of Pelosi. One freshman incumbent recently joked about the possibility of Pelosi not being able to take up the gavel next year because she might pass away. Another member from a tough district suggested he might run for speaker himself."

Not a sign of a confident party.

A question of ignorance

Many Americans are misinformed about Obama's religion, says Tunku Varadarajan in the Daily Beast, because of "confirmation bias" -- that is, believing what you want to believe:

"The fifth of Americans who hold that Obama is Muslim are unquestionably those for whom the president can do no right. Casting him as a Muslim is a convenient -- and provocative -- form of devaluation in a society which is fearful of Muslims in general. 'Muslimers' -- if I may put it that way -- are of the same ilk as 'birthers,' those who maintain (again, without a shred of evidence) that Obama was not born in the United States, rendering him ineligible for the White House. (Obama's Muslimization is a way to render him ineligible, culturally, to be an American president.)

" 'Truthers' are the left-wing counterparts of these cohorts on the right, holding -- again, in the face of all evidence and common sense -- that the United States government was itself the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. (Twenty-two percent of Americans believe that George W. Bush knew about the attacks in advance; and since there is likely to be little or no overlap between these Americans and those 18 percent who think Obama is Muslim, we have a frightening 40 percent who subscribe to a demonstrably cockamamie belief.) . . . .

"On reflection, I am less worried by the fact that a fifth of the inhabitants of this great country believe that Obama is Muslim than by the fact that 60 percent of them are unwilling, or unable, to accept the scientific basis of evolution."

Glenn Beck, newsman

Not content with highly rated television and radio shows and a big turnout at the Lincoln Memorial, he has launched The Blaze:

"If you are like me, watching the news or reading the paper can be an exercise in exasperation. It's so hard to find a place that helps me make sense of the world I see.

"Too many important stories are overlooked. And too many times we see mainstream media outlets distorting facts to fit rigid agendas. Not that you've ever heard me complain about the media before. Okay, maybe once or twice.

"But there comes a time when you have to stop complaining and do something. And so we decided to hire some actual journalists to launch a new website -- The Blaze."

We'll see if it tries to fit a "rigid agenda."

Speaking of Beck's big event on the Mall, Mediaite observes:

"Bill O'Reilly spent his entire show Monday night talking about Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally. Fox & Friends talked about it. So did Megyn Kelly, and Bret Baier, and Greta Van Susteren. But Sean Hannity didn't mention it.

"Huh. Isn't that interesting.

"I wonder why Sean Hannity, a conservative, wouldn't mention this enormous rally important to many conservatives. He had Restoring Honor speaker Sarah Palin on for two full segments to start his show Monday night -- but didn't mention the rally in D.C. last weekend. . . .

"It couldn't be some professional jealousy, right? Because Sean Hannity was the only prime time host on any cable news network not to mention the rally."

Not a Wise move

My report on WP sportswriter Mike Wise's suspension is here.

Twitter convert

I'm tired of people who criticize Twitter without knowing much about it -- not realizing that if you follow smart people, you learn stuff every day. Now we have an admission from MarketWatch's Jon Friedman that he was -- what's the word? -- wrong:

"What won me over about Twitter was essentially the idea of becoming a part of a booming online community.

"Of course, this isn't always as simple as it might seem. After noting (on Facebook, of course) that I wanted to expand the scope of my Twitter followers, I was pleased to see that the number of them had climbed over the 1,200 threshold. . . .

"Then, as I posted a few good-natured insults at Red Sox Nation, it seemed as if the total of my followers had diminished noticeably. Now I'm well under 1,200. Maybe I had better cool it with the barbs at the Boston Red Sox fans online."

Hey, if you can't take the heat. . . .

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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