Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008 because he was the one leading presidential contender who in 2002 had the wisdom to oppose the invasion of Iraq.
But he won the presidency by a wide margin, along with overwhelming Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, because Americans wanted him to restore economic stability to a land that had been shaken not just by the financial meltdown of 2008 but by decades of misguided tax and trade policies.
This combination of political realities explains why Obama’s announcement on Tuesday night that "the American combat mission in Iraq has ended" will not contribute much to his overall approval rating—or to Democratic electoral prospects this fall.
Obama gave a political speech on the eve of a volatile fall campaign. The president was savvy at some points, nuanced at others. He hit bipartisan themes; even adding a kind (if not quite approving) word for former President George Bush.
Obama was going for a healing moment after seven years of deep division and enormous human and economic cost for Iraqis and Americans, saying of Bush: "It’s well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset. Yet no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security. As I have said, there were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it. And all of us are united in appreciation for our servicemen and women, and our hope for Iraq’s future."
But, even if the president was graceful, he was trying to touch too many bases in order to score any kind of political coup.
The moment was an awkward one. And it will not alter the trajectory of the 2010 campaign.
Part of the problem is that nothing has really "ended." Fifty thousand US troops—and even more US-paid mercenaries—will continue to occupy Iraq. Obama said Tuesday night that "it’s time to turn the page." But the page will only truly have been turned when the occupation is ended, as was noted by the United for Peace and Justice coalition: "Despite a commitment to withdraw ‘combat brigades,’ these 50,000 are indeed combat troops, ‘re-missioned’ by the Pentagon and assigned to ‘training and assistance.’ But even Secretary of Defense Gates admits they will have continuing combat capability and will continue active counter-terrorism operations. The 4500 Special Forces among them will continue their ‘capture or kill’ raids while building up the Iraqi Special Operations Forces like we saw with El Salvador-style death squads in the 80’s."