President Redirects Focus From Iraq to Economy in Speech

President Redirects Focus From Iraq to Economy in Speech

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Sticking to his 2008 campaign pledge to end the war in Iraq, President Obama yesterday drew the conflict to an official close after $800 billion spent and nearly 5,000 American lives lost.   The speech set a sober tone for the official end to an American invasion that not only raised questions about its origin, but also created massive political fault lines resulting in the election of the country’s first African American president.   The speech in its entirety can be found here at C-SPAN.  Or, read the complete transcript of the speech here on the White House website.

Sitting in a newly re-decorated Oval Office, the President took no time to make the connection between the war’s end and the Administration’s desire to focus on the economy.  “I’d like to talk to you about the end of our combat mission in Iraq, the ongoing security challenges we face, and the need to rebuild our nation here at home,” said the President.  “I know this historic moment comes at a time of great uncertainty for many Americans.  We’ve now been through nearly a decade of war.  We’ve endured a long and painful recession.”

“I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.  This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve removed nearly 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq.”

Emphasizing the need to keep a remaining 50,000 soldiers in Iraq to help with “advising and assisting Iraq’s Security Forces, supporting Iraqi troops in targeted counterterrorism missions, and protecting our civilians,” the President promised the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraqi soil by the end of 2011 “[c]onsistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government.”

Using the speech on Iraq as an opportunity to underscore persistent economic uncertainty at home, President Obama established a direct link between the cost of war and difficulties faced on the domestic front.  “Unfortunately, over the last decade, we’ve not done what’s necessary to shore up the foundations of our own prosperity,” the President said.  “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. “

President Obama’s emphasis on economic concerns back home was also prompted by concerns from Congressional Democrats who had privately dismissed the focus on Iraq as taking needed energy away from Administration response to the recession. “[I]t’s worth remembering that many Dems across the country view this as a distraction,” observed National Journal Hotline editor Jeremy Jacobs. “Democrats argue that any day not focused on the economy is a wasted day in their efforts to retain House and Senate majorities. Count today as one of those days.”

Leading Republicans immediately, and predictably, complained the speech was lacking in several areas, most notably in its failure to offer credit to previous President George W. Bush for the 2007 troop surge.  “You might recall that the surge wasn’t very popular when it was announced,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). “You might also recall that one of its biggest critics was the current president. So it makes it easier to talk about fulfilling a campaign promise to wind down our operations in Iraq when the previous administration signs the security agreement with Iraq to end our overall presence there.”

Still, worries persist over the Administration’s new commitments to the war in Afghanistan.  “The nation’s longest war got two paragraphs in Obama’s address,” reflects POLITICO’s Ben Smith.  “[A]n inconvenient detour on the rhetorical path from rebuilding Iraq to rebuilding America’s economy.  But with the war that defined his candidacy in 2008 now receding, the conflict he set up then as its counterpoint – the Afghan war – now appears far more likely to define his presidency.”

“Obviously, this speech didn’t have as much flash as Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished,'” says Hiram College political science professor Jason Johnson in comments to Politic365.com. “But, the guy is doing what he promised to do in 2008.  What’s striking is that this is the fifth or sixth major campaign promise that he’s been able to accomplish. Still, nothing is going to get as much attention, including a withdrawal of troops from Iraq, as the economy is getting.  I find it humorous that after he announces the promise that he kept, he pivots right back to the issue he’s not doing well on, which is the economy.”


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