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06.23.11

Obama Speech Looks Toward 2012

The president’s speech on Afghanistan troop withdrawal was directed at a U.S. domestic audience, and shifted the focus to critical home-front issues such as jobs and the economy. It was clearly written with an eye toward his 2012 reelection bid, says John Avlon.

President Obama wore the mantle of commander in chief with uncharacteristic ease in his prime-time East Room address announcing the end of the surge in Afghanistan.

The theme was “promises kept.” The frame was America 10 years after the attacks of 9/11. And the new direction was nation building here at home, as the president pivoted to the 2012 election.

Set aside the instant snark and spin of the Twitter-verse, and it’s worth noting that the president’s base-displeasing decision to double down with an Afghan troop surge has largely been vindicated—at least for now.

Not only is Osama bin Laden dead and al Qaeda in unprecedented disarray, the Taliban are on the defensive for the first time in years. The Afghan surge has done what it was intended to do—and Obama’s campaign declaration to refocus the U.S. military on dismantling al Qaeda has brought quantifiable results.

And while his decision to set a timeline for the surge always seemed to cap its effectiveness with an exit date, he can look the American people in the eye come 2012 and say that, at least in this arena, he has done what he said he would do as commander in chief.

This speech was notable for its lack of explicit digs at President Bush—an acknowledgement that Obama’s decisions have determined the war map, for better or worse. And while there will still be 68,000 troops and civilian advisers left in Afghanistan after the 30,000 surge troops are removed next September, Obama is not kicking a problem of his creation to a potential successor.

The extent to which he can inspire and unite Americans again on the home front will determine whether he is reelected.

Amid conservatives’ current neo-isolationist fit, the 2012 GOP contenders’ responses were all over the map. Mitt Romney was as vague as in the debate, cautiously applauding the drawdown but questioning the timeline and saying he wanted to hear the generals’ assessment, presenting the image of a civilian-in-chief at odds with his military advisers. Tim Pawlenty, on the other hand, said he would have added more troops to the surge and kept them in-country longer. Jon Huntsman’s statement sounded—almost—like agreement with the president’s position.

Embedded within the speech was as tight a description of what might be called the Obama Doctrine as we have heard to date—accounting for the withdrawal from Iraq, the surge in Afghanistan and the intervention in Libya.

“Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.  We must chart a more centered course. Like generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute.

“When threatened, we must respond with force—but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas. When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead, we must rally international action, which we are doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground.”

It is a limited multilateral approach, fitting a republic—not an empire—in an era of globalization. The fact that Libya is still in chaos months later speaks to the still undetermined success of that vision.

But in the end, the audience for this speech was domestic and it was written with an ear toward 2012, with unmistakable echoes of campaign themes past and present.

The speech’s clearly intended headline—“It is time to focus on nation-building here at home”—was given its own paragraph for emphasis in the prepared text. It is the umpteenth promise to focus on jobs and the economy, an acknowledgement that the cost of wars cannot be sustained if we intend to deal with our deficit and our debt.  Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s recent pointed criticism—“That we would build bridges in Baghdad and Kandahar and not Baltimore and Kansas City, absolutely boggles the mind.”—has been heard, loud and clear.

The close was also a return to the theme that propelled Obama to the presidency in 2008—a commitment to achieving national unity, now crystalized in the memory of those months after the attacks of September 11th when the overwhelming sense of purpose made partisanship seem small.

This was a presidential speech intended to frame the 2012 debate.  President Obama has managed to depolarize the debate over Iraq and Afghanistan. This is no small feat. The extent to which he can inspire and unite Americans again on the home front will determine whether he is reelected.