FT. BLISS, Texas – Two years ago, as he declared the end to a long and divisive war, President Obama promised troops he would not be taking a “victory lap.” On Friday, the president allowed himself something of a brief victory dance.
Obama visited with troops and military families at Ft. Bliss on Friday, marking the two-year anniversary of the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. The president’s trip was a replay of a similar trip two years ago, when he visited the base just hours before a televised address declaring the end of the war.
“That night I told the American people that all our troops would be out of Iraq by the end of the following year,” Obama said. “At the time, I know some folks didn’t believe me. They were skeptical. Some thought the end of combat was just word games and semantics. But I meant what I said.”
Obama’s remarks came as his campaign tried to quickly change the channel from the grim picture of his presidency presented over the last three days at the Republican National Convention to a topic that it views as a shining, if somewhat overlooked, bright spot in the president’s record. As he arrived at the base, the White House announced a new effort to improve access to mental health care for veterans.
The president’s opposition to the Iraq war was a driving force behind his rapid rise and his promise to put an end the operations was a key focus of his 2008 presidential campaign. Making good on that promise, however, has not necessarily had the same political benefits. Most Americans have moved on – shifting their focus and priorities to the state of the economy.
Still, along with the killing of Osama bin Laden, ending the Iraq war was a signature accomplishment of Obama’s foreign policy – a policy which generally wins high marks with voters, even if it not foremost on their minds.
On Friday, the White House offered something of a reminder – with striking stagecraft.
Obama spoke to the uniformed crowd in a packed airplane hangar, a massive flag at his back. To his left, the open hanger framed distant mountains and soldiers stood, listening, on an Apache helicopter and two M1 Abrams tanks.
“We’re winding down a decade of war, we’re destroying terrorist networks that attacked us and we’ve restored American leadership,” Obama said to cheers of “hoo-ah.” “And today every American can be proud that the United States is safer, the United States is stronger and the United States is more respected in the world.”
Republicans have made only modest attempts to undermine Obama’s polling advantage on foreign policy – betting that the economy will drive more votes. At their convention this week, as they nominated a former governor and businessman with no military record or foreign policy experience, the GOP was uncharacteristically quiet on matters of national security.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech included only a brief critique of the president’s leadership in foreign affairs. Romney cast Obama as a feeble ally to Israel, weak on Iran and coddling Russia President Vladimir Putin. The speech did not mention Iraq or the war in Afghanistan.
Republicans have instead gone for broader strokes, claiming Obama has apologized to foreign leaders and weakened U.S. standing in the world.
“America, he said, had dictated to other nations,” Romney said in his acceptance speech Thursday night. “No, Mr. President, America has freed other nations from dictators.”
Obama offered a rebuttal in his remark on Friday.
“Ending these wars is letting us do something else: restore American leadership,” he said. “If you hear anyone trying to say that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, don’t you believe it, because here’s the truth: Our alliances have never been stronger.”
The president also sought to shield himself from another Republican line of attack – that he has not done enough to block looming budget cuts that will dramatically cut military spending. The cuts were approved by Republicans and Democrats in Congress and signed into law by Obama as an incentive to come up with a compromise plan to lower the deficit. No such plan is in the works.
“But understand, nobody wants these cuts,” Obama said. “There’s no reason those cuts should happen, because folks in Congress ought to come together and agree on a responsible plan that reduces the deficit and keeps our military strong.”