President Obama arranged for the television networks to break from local programing Wednesday so he could announce his decision to withdraw 30,000 troops from Afghanistan by next summer, and transition out of combat there by 2014. But the Americans who tuned in got to watch a different speech altogether.
After dispatching with the particulars–the death of bin Laden, the trouble with Pakistan, the numbers in Afghanistan–Obama turned to the battle in the American heartland, the one that has alarmed its citizens for years without reprieve, the battle against creeping economic despair and stagnation, a feeling that the country, its economy, its workforce, its homes have all seen their best days.
“America,” Obama said, “it is time to focus on nation building here at home.”
That phrase “nation building” called to mind the pitched political battles of the Bush Administration, when Obama first rose to prominence as a critic of the Iraq war. The criticism of Bush remains a rhetorical centerpiece of the Obama foreign and economic policy. Just as he often blames Bush for delivering the economic collapse in 2008, Obama waited only until the forth sentence of his address Wednesday to poke Bush for the invasion of Iraq. “Our focus shifted,” Obama said of Bush. “A second war was launched in Iraq, and we spent enormous blood and treasure to support a new government there.”
That was the “nation building” Obama was trying to move beyond. The nation building he was embracing was at home.
Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource – our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industry, while living within our means. We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy. And most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war. For our nation draws strength from our differences, and when our union is strong no hill is too steep and no horizon is beyond our reach.
Just what this meant, Obama did not say. He has proposed a series of rather modest domestic programs that could stimulate the economy, including funding for energy research and development, education and new infrastructure projects. They are the sort of programs that always are proposed in Washington, hardly of the scale that would “recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war.” But rhetorically, Obama’s speech did offer a vision that has been lacking in recent weeks from the White House, where the president has found himself repeatedly describing just how much he thinks about the problem of economic growth, without offering much in the way of a vision or a solution.
The coming months will be a testing ground for Obama, and the White House, in advance of the 2012 presidential campaign. Senate Democrats Wednesday took a political risk by announcing a “Jobs First” packaged that called for more costly, short-term assistance to the economy, a verboten topic in a city now shaped by Republican efforts to cut spending. Obama has not embraced those plans, but his comments Wednesday suggest that he does plan to offer Americans a clearer vision of prosperity and success in the face of hardening economic projections of more heartache.
For inspiration, Obama pointed to America’s fighting men and women, including the Navy Seal who led the operation to kill Osama bin Laden.
This officer – like so many others I have met with on bases, in Baghdad and Bagram, at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital – spoke with humility about how his unit worked together as one – depending on each other, and trusting one another, as a family might do in a time of peril.
That’s a lesson worth remembering – that we are all a part of one American family. Though we have known disagreement and division, we are bound together by the creed that is written into our founding documents, and a conviction that the United States of America is a country that can achieve whatever it sets out to accomplish. Now, let us finish the work at hand. Let us responsibly end these wars, and reclaim the American Dream that is at the center of our story.
Obama was playing the role American’s have long reserved for their president. He was calling the country to be better. Now comes the hard part of making it happen.