The Obama administration is going all out on Iraq today. Vice President Biden has just arrived in the country. The president will pay a call on troops home from Iraq at Ft. Bliss in Texas before returning to Washington for an Oval Office address that is promised to turn the page from Iraq to Afghanistan.
There are three major political problems for Obama in his Iraq gambit. First, the war is not over and turning the page before the story is told could be a big mistake. Second, Obama's rise to power was built largely on his opposition to the war. Third, it is not the subject in which Americans are interested.
There's nothing magical about today's date. If the Iraq invasion was George W. Bush's "war of opportunity" this is Obama's speech of opportunity. Though the last brigade dubbed "combat" has left the nation, there are still 50,000 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of contractors in the country. Special forces are still running missions, troops are still getting killed and lots of resources are still going there. The Aug. 31 deadline was Obama's pledge to end "combat operations," but the situation on the ground seems little changed.
Many Iraq experts are warning that the spike in violence there will only get worse and that the possibility that the nation, under heavy influence from neighboring Iran, could quickly devolve as U.S. forces leave over the next year. There is no government because of disputed election results and surveys and first-hand accounts show Iraqis are worried about what comes next.
The challenge for Obama tonight is finding a way to take credit for the steady departure of U.S. troops and salute their service without sounding like a hypocrite on the war. Obama and his top lieutenants Biden and then Senator Hillary Clinton heaped scorn on the war and discounted the possibility that the surge ordered by George W. Bush would work. Now, Obama seeks to take credit for a drawdown made possible by the surge he opposed and seek support for an even more ambitious rendering of the strategy in Afghanistan -- under the same commander once vilified by the left that elected him. That calls for some fancy footwork in a 15-minute telecast.
But the big problem for Obama and his party this year continues to be the dilapidated state of the economy. Americans are fleeing Democrats after the audacious new government programs of the Obama era and increasingly fault those programs for the current economic malaise. Outlooks on the economy are dim and anxiety about federal spending is way up. While the president was able to come out Tuesday and throw some partisan barbs at Republicans for seeking to amend more tax cuts into a small business bill, Obama still hasn't found a way to talk about the economy. "Heading in the right direction" is not going to cut it, nor is blaming a Republican president long gone.
Tonight's speech may help Obama restore some of his sliding approval ratings. Americans generally react well to hearing their troops praised for a job well done. But Obama's message will necessarily be a complicated one because of all the political baggage he brings with him to the Oval Office this evening. Moreover, his professorial style doesn't lend itself to martial remarks - consider the dry dissertation in December 2009 at West Point launching his Afghan surge.