President Obama is seen at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, May 23, 2013, during a speech in which he sought to refine and recalibrate his counterterrorism strategy, and asserted that al-Qaida is “on the path to defeat.” (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Chief correspondent

Ever since he declared his opposition to dumb wars, but not all wars, more than a decade ago, President Obama has wrestled with the practicalities of how to keep the country safe from terrorist threats while preserving civil liberties and constitutional values. The conflicts inherent in those questions were on display again Thursday in his speech at the National Defense University.

It is arguable that Obama would not be president were it not for the speech he delivered in October 2002 in which he outlined his opposition to the impending war in Iraq. His disapproval, in contrast to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s vote to authorize the war, opened a vein of support on the left that crucially helped him the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Less noticed was what else Obama did in that speech in Chicagowhich was to avoid positioning himself too far to the left as an antiwar politician. “Although this has been billed as an antiwar rally,” he said in his opening comments, “I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances.”

It seemed a simple and obvious point, but as Obama’s presidency has shown, there is frequently a gap between rhetoric and results.

Obama has delivered a series of major addresses on war-related themes as president. They include the speech he gave here in Washington in May 2009, in which he vowed to chart a path different from that of former president George W. Bush; the “new beginning” speech in Cairo in June 2009, outlining his hope for a fresh relationship with the Muslim world; his speech at West Point in December 2009, calling simultaneously for a surge of troops in Afghanistan and a deadline for ending that conflict; and his speech in Oslo eight days later, in which he made the case for just wars as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

In each instance, Obama articulated challenges and policy choices while expressing his desire to strike the right balance between living up to the nation’s highest ideals while aggressively countering the very real threats to national security.

That was the case again Thursday. But it came after four years in office and with a record to defend. Thursday’s speech reflected a president who appeared to have been thinking intently about how he will be remembered by history and who wanted to rebalance, though not necessarily reset, his adopted course.

The speech came at a time when he has been under fire for his administration’s extensive use of drones to kill suspected terrorists, a practice that goes beyond anything any previous president has done. It also came amid revelations that his administration had attempted to criminalize the work of reporters in its effort to plug leaks. He was also obviously mindful that he has failed to fulfill an early campaign promise to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Obama’s many facets also were on display in Thursday’s speech: liberal idealist, civil libertarian, constitutional scholar, pragmatist and, perhaps most relevant, commander in chief in the middle of a war.

He would like people to remember that his presidency has been about ending wars, and he made the case that an endless war on terror is not in the best interests of a democracy. But wage war he has, and he will continue to do so, and he made the case for that, as well — as he had in Oslo at the Nobel ceremonies.

Obama attracted support on the left because of his positions on such things as closing Guantanamo, ending the war in Iraq and ruling out the use of torture as part of the interrogation process of suspected terrorists.

He used George W. Bush as a foil in his first campaign and sought to distance himself from his predecessor’s policies once in office. But as president, he has carried out, and in some cases expanded, some of those Bush policies.

On Thursday, he sought to defend what he has done while replanting his presidency on the ground on which he ran in 2008. He set out a clear justification for the use of drones while issuing new restrictions on their use. Although he has been unable to close Guantanamo, he said he is more determined than ever to do so. And he said journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs.

Criticism came quickly from some conservatives, who described Obama as naive in his desire to bring an eventual end to the global war on terror or to return to a pre-9/11 approach to dealing with threats of terrorism. But he also won endorsement from sometime-adversaries on the right, such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who said they would work with him to try to close the prison at Guantanamo.

Obama did not chart a wholly new course on Thursday. What he offered was a statement of his values and an expression of his aspirations. History ultimately will judge how successfully he put them into practice.

A personal note: Haynes Johnson died unexpectedly Friday.

He was already a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter when I first met him as a college student. I admired him from afar for many years. We then worked together at The Washington Post until he left to teach at the University of Maryland. Four years ago, we collaborated on a book about the 2008 campaign. He was an inspiration, a colleague and a friend.

Haynes was one of the giants of journalism. He was as energetic, exuberant and determined as any reporter I ever knew. He had an irrepressible zest for the big story, and he always wrote it with sweep and grace. He had a master’s degree in history from the University of Wisconsin, and he might have been a historian had he not been so drawn to the action of news. And yet he wrote, in his newspaper articles and especially in his books, with a historian’s sensibility.

He covered civil rights and presidential campaigns and presidential administrations. No one was better at traveling the country and describing the ever-changing landscape. He was fascinated by it all: by the people he found along with way, by the politicians he knew or skewered.

He always said that at its best, journalism is storytelling, and he was as good as there was. Like no one else, he wrote the story of America for more than half a century, and his loss is deeply felt.

For previous columns by Dan Balz,
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