Turning the page to new battles

TURNING THE PAGE TO NEW BATTLES…. There was a certain awkwardness underscoring last night’s Oval Office address. President Obama wanted to mark the milestone of ending combat operations in Iraq, while the public’s focus remains on the economy. The result was somewhat unexpected — the president threaded a needle, and covered both.

On Iraq, Obama approached descriptions of the war with real caution — “Mission Accomplished” was obviously not going to be on the menu, but there was also no talk of “victory.” The “surge” was not mentioned, and references to George W. Bush were brief, polite, and inconsequential. I was a little concerned that Obama might try to sugarcoat the misguided conflict, but he clearly did not. Indeed, the president made little effort to characterize this war as having been worthwhile, or even having made America safer, which I found reassuring, since the war’s proponents have been wrong on both counts.

Instead, Obama heralded the achievement with workmanlike efficiency — U.S. troops performed brilliantly; “we have met our responsibility”; we’re following the withdrawal plan Obama helped establish; and we’ll be around to play a support role but the ball is in Iraq’s court now.

The rhetoric was similar in describing the U.S. role in Afghanistan: “[A]s was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves….[M]ake no mistake: this transition will begin, because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.

All of this, though, was a precursor to the president shifting the focus from Iraq to the homefront.

“Throughout our history, America has been willing to bear the burden of promoting liberty and human dignity overseas, understanding its links to our own liberty and security. But we have also understood that our nation’s strength and influence abroad must be firmly anchored in our prosperity at home. And the bedrock of that prosperity must be a growing middle class.

“Unfortunately, over the last decade, we’ve not done what’s necessary to shore up the foundations of our own prosperity. We spent a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform. As a result, too many middle-class families find themselves working harder for less, while our nation’s long-term competitiveness is put at risk.

“And so at this moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy, and grit, and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad. They have met every test that they faced. Now, it’s our turn. Now, it’s our responsibility to honor them by coming together, all of us, and working to secure the dream that so many generations have fought for — the dream that a better life awaits anyone who is willing to work for it and reach for it.

“Our most urgent task is to restore our economy, and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work. To strengthen our middle class, we must give all our children the education they deserve, and all our workers the skills that they need to compete in a global economy. We must jumpstart industries that create jobs, and end our dependence on foreign oil. We must unleash the innovation that allows new products to roll off our assembly lines, and nurture the ideas that spring from our entrepreneurs. 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.”

It reminded me of a mini State of the Union, balancing out talk of foreign and domestic policy. That probably wasn’t widely expected in this Oval Office address — at least not by me — but it’s an acknowledgement of the larger political environment.

In 2007, the national desire to see a president end combat operations and bring 100,000 troops home was intense, and last night’s remarks seemed like a distant dream. Three years later, there’s a sense that Americans watching last night may very well have been thinking, “Developments in Iraq are good news, but I want to hear about the economy.”

In the end, the speech worked for me. I have no idea what the pundits will complain about, but the remarks did exactly what they set out to do. What’d you think?