A prime time yawner

    A televised Oval Office address typically has several purposes – to inspire, to reassure, to educate, and, perhaps above all, to strengthen the president’s political support. By those measures, particularly the latter one, Barack Obama’s prime-time address on Iraq was a flop.

    A televised Oval Office address typically has several purposes – to inspire, to reassure, to educate, and, perhaps above all, to strengthen the president’s political support. By those measures, particularly the latter one, Barack Obama’s prime-time address on Iraq was a flop.

    The midterm elections are less than nine weeks away, and voters are overwhelmingly focused on the moribund economy. Iraq’s importance notwithstanding, it is now a second-tier bummer. Obama spent much of August signaling that the combat mission was over; his vice president did the same. In the Oval Office last night, Obama needed to focus solely on the economy – not tack it onto the back end of another Iraq riff. In domestic political terms, every precious minute spent addressing the American people about Iraq is one less minute spent addressing the topic that’s foremost on everyone’s minds.

    It won’t help the president’s party on election day if voters perceive that the president is insufficiently attuned to the prevailing public mood. This is particularly true among the independent swing voters whose party allegiances are weakest, whose behavior in November is arguably driven most by the health status of the economy. Obama didn’t talk about the economy, about the besieged middle class, until the closing minutes of his address – by which point, it’s safe to assume, the majority of viewers had already checked out – and he offered no specifics anyway. Probably because, as I noted here yesterday, the two parties are gridlocked on what to do next.

    This, at least, was an interesting passage: “We must tackle those (economic) 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.”

    He appeared to be suggesting that those who obstruct his economic prescriptions are therefore dishonoring the troops. I doubt that this insinuation will inspire the Republicans to cooperate.

    Independent swing voters aside, Obama last night also needed to stoke his under-enthused Democratic base; if liberals stay home in droves on election day (as the polls suggest may happen), a lot of congressional Democratic candidates are toast. But his remarks – especially with respect to Iraq – may well have inspired more liberals to skip the midterms.

    Ninety percent of the Iraq passages could have been delivered verbatim by George W. Bush. There was lots of talk about building a nascent democracy “in the cradle of civilization,” seemingly straight from the neoconservative handbook. There was a glancing reference to his past disagreements with Bush about the war, but it might have reassured the liberal base (and, frankly, most Americans) if he at least had pledged that America on his watch will never launch another war of choice on the basis of specious or phony intelligence. Or if he had somehow revisited his campaign assertion that the war in Iraq had made America less safe. Does he still believe that, or not?

    Worse yet, he appeared to channel his predecessor by sugar-coating the current realities in Iraq. For instance, this passage: “This year also saw Iraq hold credible elections that drew a strong turnout. A caretaker administration is in place, as Iraqis form a government based on the results of that election. Tonight, I encourage Iraq’s leaders to move forward with a sense of urgency to form an inclusive government that is just, representative, and accountable to the Iraqi people. And when that government is in place, there should be no doubt. The Iraqi people will have a strong partner in the United States. Our combat mission is ending, but our commitment to Iraq’s future is not…What America can do, and will do, is provide support for the Iraqi people as both a friend and a partner.”

    Those remarks are most notable for what they omitted. Those “credible elections” in Iraq were staged nearly six months ago, yet the Iraqis still haven’t formed a government. Why? Because the two largest Shiite parties have been feuding, because neither has been able to make a deal with the Kurdish parties, nor with the Sunnis – who supported the party that finished first in the voting, but who may wind up powerless if the Shiites and Kurds finally come together. And the longer they all dither, the greater the threat of a dangerous security vacuum. And Obama, by his own admission, can only “encourage” the formation of a government.

    Meanwhile, Obama’s liberal base undoubtedly spotted the loophole in Obama’s pledge to Iraq (“What America can do, and will do, is provide support for the Iraqi people as both a friend and a partner”). He also insisted that “it’s time to turn the page,” but can that truly happen if we’re pledging further “support?” What are the limits of “support?” Assuming that the Iraqis manage to cobble together a coalition regime, how will Obama respond next year when Iraqi leaders – as widely expected – formally request that a sizable number of American troops remain in Iraq, beyond the deadline set for the residual 50,000? As “a friend and a partner,” could America say no?

    All told, Obama and his party gained nothing last night. And the clock to November is ticking.

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