Obama's Iraq Announcement And The GOP Race

As President Obama focuses this week on housing and jobs, Republican White House hopefuls are keeping up a drumbeat of criticism over his announcement last week that all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of this year. In debates and on the stump, the GOP candidates are attacking each other but also maintaining a steady anti-Obama refrain.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As President Obama focuses this week on housing and jobs, his potential Republican challengers are keeping up a drumbeat of criticism over his announcement, last week, that all American troops will be out of Iraq by the end of this year. In debates and on the stump, Republican presidential candidates are attacking each other, but they're also keeping up a steady anti-Obama refrain. For some analysis, we're joined this morning - as we are most weeks - by NPR's Cokie Roberts. Good morning Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now it would seem to be a positive announcement - all troops home for the holidays, from Iraq. Isn't that what Americans want to hear from the president?

ROBERTS: Yes, it is. The most recent polling on it shows that two-thirds of Americans were opposed to the war in Iraq. Now, instructively, that polling was last January. It's just not been at the forefront of American concerns, even though we've lost almost 4,500 troops - killed in Iraq. So it is – you know, it's just not been on the front burner.

But President Obama made the point that this was a deal that President Bush and the Iraqis had done together. But still - and all - his Republican opponents, as you said, went after him over the weekend, trying to convey the idea that he's weak on defense. And that is a label that has hurt Democrats, you know, since Vietnam days. Republicans think they can keep it working for them, even though the American people are ready to get the troops home.

You know, actually, Renee, both things can be true at the same time. People might want to get the troops home, but might also fear that the Democrats are not strong enough, internationally, even as President Obama can say that Osama bin Laden is dead, Gadhafi is dead, and Mubarak is gone.

MONTAGNE: Well, this whole political attack on the president does raise the question, who is most hurt by this contentious and very long Republican presidential contest - I mean, a battered eventual Republican nominee or President Obama?

ROBERTS: Well, that's always an interesting calculation. And I think this year, we really have this odd Republican race with people sort of popping up to the top of the polls and then dropping back - all in an effort to find the not-Romney candidate. And I think it's something of a cacophony out there in these many, many debates. The one, clear message that does come through is the anti-Obama message. And there are lots of students of presidential politics who believe that a long fight in one party, despite the incredible drain on resources, actually works for that party because that party is getting their message out; candidates are honing their skills.

That certainly worked for President Obama when he was running in 2008. But now, of course, he's the recipient. And we see his favorability number in the latest Gallup Poll is the lowest ever, and more and more Americans saying the country is off on the wrong track - which is always a terrible number for incumbents. And I think at least some of those low numbers for the president, and the country, probably are coming from the relentless attacks by the Republican presidential candidates.

MONTAGNE: So what does the president do? If getting enemies abroad, and bringing troops home, are things that may or may not work for him but are certainly overwhelmed by American's concerns for the economy, how does he improve his standing in time for the election?

ROBERTS: Well, trips like the one he's taking today to Nevada matter. It's especially important to get the Hispanic vote out, excited about turning out, in places like Nevada this week and Colorado next week. And convince them that even though he hasn't done immigration reform, it's still worth showing up to vote for him against the anti-immigration rhetoric of the Republicans. It's a hard sell. On the jobs bill, which Congress seems not to be passing, he can run against the Republicans for failure to do popular things, but it could backfire.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much. NPR's Cokie Roberts, joining us as she does most Mondays. And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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