By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
By insisting Tuesday evening that “it’s time to turn the page,” President Obama was talking about more than the Iraq War, and doing much more than reviving one of his most effective slogans from the 2008 campaign.
He was also trying to turn the page on a period in which he has found himself on the defensive, his party in a perilous position for November’s elections, and his reputation for political mastery in doubt.
Obama’s Oval Office speech was resolutely nonpolitical in form but profoundly political in its implications. To rescue his party, Obama had to begin rebuilding his own popularity, offer hope in a time of economic despair, and restore confidence in the course on which he has set the nation.
It was an almost impossibly difficult combination of goals, and he chose to achieve them in just 18 minutes. He spoke about war and foreign policy to a country exhausted by combat abroad and focused intensely on economic problems at home. Obama had to present himself as a commander in chief, not as the leader of the Democratic Party, yet the speech could only be heard in the context of an election that is just two months away.
The result was a series of balancing acts that, while a bit ungainly, held the promise of lifting Obama’s standing with middle-of-the road voters who may have begun to lose faith.
His treatment of former President George W. Bush was emblematic. His words were exceptionally gracious. While noting that he and his predecessor “disagreed about the war from its outset,” Obama added that “no one can doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security.”
For those who see the Iraq War as a catastrophic mistake—and their ranks include many of Obama’s earliest supporters—this was more praise than Bush deserved given the magnitude of the error he made. Meanwhile, some of the war’s staunchest backers immediately assailed Obama for not crediting the positive effects of Bush’s troop surge.
Less-partisan voters, however, may simply have seen an Obama behaving like a president, being as generous as he had to be, acknowledging the valor of our troops but refusing to concede that a war so many of them wish we hadn’t fought was a good idea.
In fact, the central players in Obama’s story were not politicians at all but the men and women of “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known.”
By constantly returning to their sacrifices, Obama sought to reassure those who fought and the families of those who died that their exertions and losses had accomplished great things for the nation, even in a war that the current commander in chief regards as mistaken. Here, too, he spoke for many conflicted Americans who now doubt the wisdom of the war and yet still hope it might yield something other than bitter fruit.
And then, well more than halfway through, Obama offered what Democrats had been waiting for: a turn homeward and a brutal accounting of the costs of the conflict.
“We spent a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas,” Obama declared. “This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform.”
Members of the president’s party, struggling for political traction, were quick to highlight his call to face our “challenges at home.” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who has the unenviable task of leading the Democrats’ effort to hold the House of Representatives, said in an interview shortly after Obama concluded: “The overall theme of the speech was that it’s time to turn to nation-building at home rather than nation-building abroad.”
For Van Hollen and other Democrats, the real test of whether Obama succeeded will not be the reception of this single address but whether it becomes the prelude to an invigorated presidency that uses the end of combat operations in Iraq to rekindle the aspirations for change that won him power in the first place.
As a successful author, Obama knows that turning a page is not the same as writing the next chapter. Now, he must produce a narrative compelling enough to alter a story line that, on its current trajectory, does not end well for him.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group
White House / Pete Souza