Was Obama's speech 'Mission Accomplished'?
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; 6:58 PM
At critical turns in his political career, President Obama has used his substantial rhetorical skills to enhance his political standing or deflect problems. That's why the tension inherent in his Oval Office address on Tuesday night spoke volumes about the political condition of his administration and the Democratic Party.
It was appropriate to mark the end of the United States' combat mission in Iraq after more than seven years and more than 4,000 deaths. It was also appropriate to pay tribute to the men and women who served there, were killed or wounded there, and to their families for the sacrifices they made.
But the 18-minute speech tried to do much more, and it showed. The president moved from the war to the economy and back, from ending combat in Iraq to rebuilding at home, from the commitment to defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to the declaration that this will not be an open-ended commitment and back to the economy. He tried to pack at lot into a short address.
At the time his speech was conceived, earlier in the summer, the president's advisers may have thought that there would be a political value to highlighting the withdrawal of all combat forces from Iraq.
This was, after all, a campaign promise they could point to as fulfilled - even if a residual force of 50,000 troops will remain until the end of next year, even if violence remains a problem and even if the Iraqis have not resolved their political differences over a new government.
If anything, marking the withdrawal of combat forces was a reminder to Obama's base that he had kept his word, just as he had done in pushing health-care reform through Congress, just as he had done in getting financial regulation legislation passed. Obama and the Democrats need those voters energized for November.
In the days before the speech, however, it was clear that many in his party wondered why the president was using his second Oval Office address to talk about the war in Iraq rather than the problem that threatens to cost Democrats their House and Senate majorities in November: the economy. As a result, the speech tried to bridge the two issues, sometimes awkwardly.
For Democratic candidates worried about their own survival, it's easy to criticize the White House for spending more time on foreign policy this week than on domestic problems. Presidents, however, don't always have the luxury of deciding how to spend their time. Problems arise, opportunities present themselves, the calendar dictates.
The date for withdrawal of combat forces was set early in Obama's presidency. Given the divisions the war created and the symbolic importance of this moment, Obama would have been remiss in not marking the departure of the last combat units.
There also is no reason to question the timing of his latest effort to start the peace process in the Middle East. As a candidate, Obama pledged that he would take a more active role early in his administration to move Israelis and Palestinians toward a two-state solution.
After 18 months of frustrating inaction, the opportunity has arisen to move the process forward, with the president hosting the parties at the White House on Wednesday night as a prelude to face-to-face talks. Would nervous Democrats prefer that Obama ignore those opportunities to concentrate solely on the economy? It's doubtful.