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."
Part of it is that the US combat mission is Afghanistan had not ended. In fact, it is expanding. And, despite his recognition that "open-ended wars" are not in the US interest, Obama said nothing Tuesday night to suggest that an immediate end is in the offing. Former White House aide David Gergen claimed after Tuesday night’s speech that the president "helped himself with the [Democratic] base." That’s doubtful, as the most engaged anti-war activists—in the Democratic party and in the broader population—is arguably as concerned now about the quagmire in Afghanistan as it was about the war in Iraq.
But the real reason that Obama’s announcement will have little political impact is because, as Obama admitted in his address to the nation: "Today, our most urgent task is to restore our economy, and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work."
Obama tried to make some "peace and prosperity" linkages Tuesday night. He even admitted, as Dwight Eisenhower did before him, that the expenses of wars and occupations rob the federal Treasury of funds that could pay for education, healthcare and job creation at home.
But, with expensive occupations continuing, it’s not as if swords are about to be beaten into ploughshares. Senator Russ Feingold spoke a blunt truth when, after the speech, the Wisconsin Democrat explained that: "The cost of our military operation in Iraq—more than $700 billion to date—continues to plunge us deeper into debt. Not one penny of the cost has been offset and it has just added to our budget deficits. We can help get our fiscal house in order by ending our military involvement in Iraq. Delaying our final troop redeployments for another year will add tens of billions more dollars to our massive debt."
Obama says we must "meet our challenges at home with as much energy and grit" as is poured into war-making abroad.
But that’s just a nice turn of phrase.
Democrats nominated Obama to end a war in Iraq. He has not quite done that; tens of thousands of US troops remain on the ground in that country and, while polling shows that most Americans are happy that the combat mission is being dialed down, they do not believe US goals have been achieved in Iraq.
The great mass of Americans elected Obama to repair a broken economy. And even he admits that he is a long way from doing that. Indeed, he admits: "This will be difficult. But in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people and my central responsibility as president."
Rhetorically, the president is right.
Practically, however, his attention is divided. The occupations continue. The costs, human and economic, continue. The domestic challenges continue.