Obama's Oval Office Address: The Mixed Messages Piled Up

President Obama during his Oval Office address; Aug. 31, 2010.

hide captionAddressing the nation Tuesday night.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP

President Obama addressed the nation Tuesday night from the Oval Office for 18 minutes and the subject was Iraq.

Or was it?

Clearly, the president wanted to remind the nation that he had honored his commitment to end the combat mission in Iraq by the end of August 2010.  So he announced that he had done so, right on schedule. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, he said. Time to turn the page.

Simple. But then, not so simple.

The president, ambitious and complicated as always, wanted the country to hear a few other things he has on his mind. And the mixed messages piled up, even in so brief an address.

First off, the president seemed to want to reconcile — if only in his own mind — the warring camps of Iraq war supporters and detractors. Let the two sides fight on in endless debates on cable TV and the Internet, he seemed to say, but let the rest of us thank the troops for their sacrifices and move on.

As an emblem of this lofty resolve, he told us he had called former President George W. Bush, the man whose war Iraq was, to salute his predecessor's motives and patriotism. You could call this presidential courtesy, or just call it an effort to look presidential. Either way, it was enough to leave the antiwar left spluttering: What happened to the guy who called the war "dumb" and "rash" in 2002 and ran against it full-bore as a senatorial and presidential candidate for half a decade?

At the same time, the reconciliation message won't placate the true defenders of the last president, who wanted to hear him get thanked for the troop surge of 2007 that reduced the levels of violence in Iraq. The essence of that surge, the change in tactics to one of defending the population, DID come in for praise in Mr. Obama's speech, as did its architect, Gen. David Petraeus. But neither the general nor the surge itself were named until the commander in chief had shifted to talking about Afghanistan. Deft, perhaps, but also too clever by half.

And by the way, that other war, the one in Afghanistan, is not doing much these days to please or reconcile anyone on either side of the Iraq war divide. The doves think it's "Obama's Vietnam"; the hawks think he's blowing it by talking about a withdrawal starting in August 2011. So when Mr. Obama says the drawdown from Iraq will help support a buildup in Afghanistan, he's probably not winning a lot of new fans in either camp. The main thing he's doing is eliminating all doubt that this particular part of the Bush legacy is now very much his own.

So shouldn't the president get some credit for ending the combat mission in Iraq? Is the continued presence of 50,000 U.S. military personnel draining all of the drama from the withdrawal of another 100,000? The president's problem here isn't that people resist his call to "move on," it's that they already have.

Several recent polls ranking popular concerns show that fewer than one in 10 Americans consider the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the top concern facing the nation (the average share across polls: 7.5 percent). Most of these polls find that the wars don't even rank among the top five concerns. Sixty percent now say the Iraq war was a mistake, but it's yesterday's mistake. The country is preoccupied with what it fears are the mistakes of today.

Perhaps because he is aware of all of this, the president devoted only a little over half of his Oval Office address to Iraq. He pivoted to Afghanistan briefly and then on to domestic issues, which he called his "central responsibility."

On this front, the president is engaged in his toughest battle yet: the fight to get people to believe in the economy's recovery. Consumers continue to hold back in uncertainty, businesses to hoard cash. Housing sales and starts are sluggish, financial markets can find little wind for their sails.  Most important: Job growth numbers disappoint month after month.

For much of the past year, the economy seemed to be making its usual comeback from recession, and right on historical schedule. Although widely unappreciated, the recovery at least seemed to be under way. The financial panic of this spring in Europe, now largely forgotten, reignited the fears of 2008. And most economic indicators since have been discouraging.

In response, the president has so far offered a few targeted programs and a willingness to tinker here and there. He seems resigned to wait for the natural forces of recovery to gain strength again. There may not be much more he can offer, except his own determination and eloquence.

Caught as he is in the backwash of Bush's agenda and the backlash against his own, the president's words may be the best tools he still has.

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