Analysis: Obama can't say it enough: Iraq war over
WASHINGTON (AP) — Over and over, the Iraq war is over.
President Barack Obama, who opposed the war all the way to the White House, can't remind people enough that he is the one ending it and getting every last troop home.
He is not just commander in chief intent on lauding the valor of the military. He is a president seeking re-election and soaking up every chance to make a promise kept.
On Wednesday at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, a post that sent thousands of troops to Iraq and saw more than 200 of them die there, Obama summoned glory and gravity. In a speech full of pride in American fighting forces, Obama declared to soldiers Wednesday that the "war in Iraq will soon belong to history, and your service belongs to the ages."
If the thought sounded familiar, it was because Obama has essentially been declaring an end since the start of his term.
Every milestone allows him to reach all those voters who opposed the unpopular war, including liberals in his party, whose enthusiasm he must reignite to win a second term.
There was the speech in Camp Lejeune, N.C., way back in February 2009, when he said: "Let me say this as plainly as I can: By Aug. 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."
When that mission ended, Obama held a rare Oval Office address to the nation to celebrate the moment and declare: "It's time to turn the page."
In the last two months, Obama has taken three more swings at it, all of them commanding the attention the White House wanted.
In October, from the press briefing room: "As promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year." On Monday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at his side: "This is a historic moment. A war is ending." On Wednesday to troops: "Iraq's future will be in the hands of its people. America's war in Iraq will be over."
He also made time this week to speak about Iraq to regional television stations serving military communities, most of them in states targeted by his re-election campaign.
Without question, the ending of a war is moment for any president to reflect with the country. Yet even Obama noted people have seen this one coming for a while.
Since George W. Bush was president, in fact.
Bush was the one who struck a deal with Iraq to set Dec. 31, 2011, as the final day of the war. Yet it was Obama who accelerated the end of the U.S. combat mission when he took office, shifted attention to Afghanistan, and decided to leave no troops behind in Iraq after this year.
The final U.S. forces will be out in days.
This, in essence, is Obama's mission accomplished: Getting out of Iraq as promised under solid enough circumstances and making sure to remind voters that he did what he said.
It is harder to remember now, with joblessness dominating the presidential debate and souring the public mood, but it was not long ago that the Iraq war consumed about everything.
In a new Associated Press-GfK poll, about half of those surveyed called the Iraq war highly important to them. It placed lower in importance than all but one of 14 current issues.
"It's understandable that he's trying to bring it back to the forefront of the public consciousness," said Ole Holsti, a retired Duke University professor who has written a book about American public opinion of the Iraq war.
"From a purely domestic political viewpoint, this is something that the president can bank on — most Americans are eager to bring it to an end," he said. "I think after all this time, there's probably a kind of overriding sense of relief: 'This is when we'll have the boys home.'"
Obama's approval rating on handling the situation in Iraq has been above 50 percent since last fall. In the new AP-GfK poll, he has ticked up four points since October to 55 percent.
Twice now, Obama has delivered we're-ending-the-war speeches in North Carolina, a state he barely won in 2008 and that is integral to his re-election prospects.
This is hardly a moment of national unity. About every issue seems politically toxic now.
As troops leave Iraq, 77 percent of Democrats approve of Obama's handling of the war compared to 33 percent of Republicans, an enormous gap. Independents are in the middle.
Obama's challenge has been to get out of the war without leaving Iraq in mess, to be consistent in his opposition without undermining the military under his command.
Nearly 4,500 Americans have been killed in the war. More than 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq. The toll stretches in all directions.
So Obama was effusive in heralding the troops and their families. With no mention of victory, he called their service toward a self-reliant Iraq an extraordinary achievement.
"Americans expect the valor of the troops to be lauded no matter what they thought of the war itself, and Obama is very sensitive to that," said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. "That's one big part of what he's doing."
The other parts, Jillson said, have been to check the box of his campaign promise kept, and to close out the war as best as possible.
"Saying the troops performed nobly is easy," Jillson said. "The more difficult task is to make the case that the resources were well expended and the future of Iraq looks bright."
Especially for a president who called the war dumb and rash before it even began.
Obama has, though, been offering pronouncements of better days ahead in Iraq. Bush used to talk of Iraq becoming a beacon of hope in a region desperate for it. For those who caught it, Obama this week sure sounded plenty similar, arguing that "a successful, democratic Iraq can be a model for the entire region."
But mainly, Obama's message has been that it's all over, on his terms, just like he said. Again and again.
EDITOR'S NOTE — AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller has covered the Obama and Bush presidencies.