As Voters Focus on Economy, Obama To Give Prime-Time Speech … on Iraq

by Randy Shaw on August 31, 2010

President Obama’s vacation coincided with a series of bad economic reports that left millions of Americans anxious about the future. One would think that Obama would seize upon his return with a national address calling for major new public investment, which would also put Republican opponents on the defensive. But when President Obama addresses the nation tonight, he will not be talking tonight about jobs or the economy. Instead, he will talk about Iraq. Iraq is not a kitchen-table issue, and does nothing to distinguish Democrats from Republicans. Rather than try to mobilize the Democratic base around economic issues for November, Obama will speak in bipartisan terms –causing most voters to either flip channels or not tune in at all.

I truly sympathize with those pounding the pavement for Organizing for America, Democracy for America, MoveOn and other national groups trying to rejuvenate the Democratic base for November. The same politician that made campaign outreach so easy in the fall of 2008 is now making it hard for his supporters to galvanize troops, seemingly going out of his way to avoid generating grassroots enthusiasm.

Obama’s Vineyard Reading

Obama said he did a lot of reading while vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard last week. He was given a pre-publication copy of Jonathan Franzen’s already over hyped new book, Freedom, whose account of family dysfunctions offers little in the way of advice for a President facing an economic crisis.

Perhaps the President had time to read Jane Mayer’s fantastic New Yorker account of David and Charles Koch, the “billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama.” If so, he would realize the forces out to destroy him are not threatened by his giving a speech on Iraq, and are likely gleeful he is not using a prime-time, Oval Office address to lambaste Republicans for backing tax cuts for the super-rich.

But one cannot read Mayer, or any 2010 columns by the New York Times’ Frank Rich or Paul Krugman, or the articles that appear most days on Daily Kos, Huffington Post, Firedoglake, or even Beyond Chron, and not conclude that the President must recapture public confidence in his economic agenda. So Obama’s decision to give a national address on Iraq was clearly not spawned by his vacation reading.

Avoiding “Partisanship”

Prior to leaving for vacation, the President seemed to discover that it was time for “politicking,” and spoke powerfully in public rallies against Republican economic policies as if he were back on the campaign trail. Yet as his party’s base clamors for a populist attack on Republican tax policies, Obama is going in the opposite direction by focusing on our bipartisan involvement in Iraq.

While Obama’s opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002 distinguished him from Hillary Clinton in 2008, today the Iraq issue is a no-win situation for the President.

Progressives are unhappy about the remaining 50,000 troops and Obama’s escalated military presence in the endless war in Afghanistan. Independents either do not care about Iraq, or will be quick to blame Obama when Iraq’s government falls apart after the departure of U.S. troops.

For all those who believe that Obama politically benefits from Iraq because it shows that his word can be trusted (he withdrew troops as promised), the truth is that few voters care. Whereas Democrats benefited politically from the Iraq fiasco in 2006 and 2008, the public no longer sees Iraq as a reason to vote against Republicans.

That’s what makes Obama’s decision to focus his post-vacation national address on Iraq so distressing. At a time when the President needs to give voters a reason to vote Democratic in November, he instead focuses on the rare issue where the two parties leadership agrees.

Obama’s Last Minute Heroics

An August 31 speech is obviously not Obama’s last chance to launch a populist economic program, or to attack Republicans for backing tax cuts for the wealthy. And I have no doubt that the President will eventually rally the troops – drawing loud, enthusiastic crowds.

But we know that Obama likes last minute heroics, and can point to a number of campaigns throughout his career when he defied experts by rising after he was counted out. It happened when his presidential campaign seemed to stall during the summer of 2007, and when he enacted health care reform after many thought it dead.

The President likely thinks that he has plenty of time to turn to economic populism, and that it helps his stature as Commander in Chief to remind the nation that he brought Iraq troops home as promised.

Voters, however, are not angry over Obama’s performance as Commander in Chief; instead, they need to hear that Obama has a plan to get the economy moving again. Many will interpret the President’s talking about Iraq to mean he has no new economic strategy – or even worse, that he doesn’t understand their concerns.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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