Sometimes the past really is a foreign country

Many people view Republicans and especially their leaders as being fixated on the past, and that perception is not entirely unjustified. Just last week, at the Lincoln Memorial, Sarah Palin spoke of the need to restore America rather than to transform it. And not that long ago, as some of us measure time, Bob Dole ran for president promising to be “a bridge to the past.”
These days, however, it is President Obama who seems to thirst for the past, albeit the recent past when he was a bright new thing, and popular to boot.
I’ve already commented on Obama’s decision “wallow” in Hurricane Katrina. I took that to be, in part, a reflection of his yearning for the happy days when Republicans were the ones having their competence questioned and feeling the ire of the public. Certainly, it was reflection of his yearning to remind the public of those days.
Tonight, Obama will address the nation on Iraq. This is a topic that also is far from the minds of most Americans, and thus an odd one to which to devote a would-be major presidential speech.
But Obama has reason to believe that a speech on Iraq might serve his purposes. Like Katrina, this is a subject that once was a major source of American discontent with Republicans. And it’s a subject on which, at the height of that discontent, Obama was viewed as having the correct line. Moreover, it is an issue about which he can claim to have kept his campaign promise. And it’s an area where a significant portion of his political base might still be fairly happy with his performance.
Yet there are complications for Obama, the most important of which is that he opposed the policy that turned the situation in Iraq around, namely the surge. How to deal with this inconvenient truth?
It actually shouldn’t be very difficult. Obama could simply give credit to President Bush for launching the surge. A gracious word about his predecessor would improve Obama’s image. After all, he won office in part by promising to transcend partisan finger-pointing. And by exhibiting a little grace for a change, Obama would make it seem churlish for anyone to point the finger at him over his misguided thinking about the surge.
Perhaps Obama will rise above his perpetual pettiness and turn his speech into a bi-partisan feel-good event. Obama reportedly called former president Bush this morning. That might be a good sign.
On the other hand, Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, is dancing around the question of whether and to what extent the surge is responsible for the turnaround in Iraq. When asked point blank, “Why not give President Bush credit for ordering the surge?” the best Gibbs could do was to respond, “Again…I’d be happy to circulate the president’s comments that go back to 2007 and go back to 2008 on this.”
If Gibbs does circulate comments by Obama from that period, he had better be selective. For, as Peter Wehner shows, Gibbs is not being truthful about Obama’s position on the surge.
According to Gibbs, “President Obama, then-candidate Obama, said that adding those 20,000 troops into Iraq would, indeed, improve the security situation, and it did.” But on the night of President Bush’s “surge” announcement, then-Senator Obama proclaimed: “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq are going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse” (emphasis added).
If Obama goes down the same dishonest path as his press secretary, his address will, if anything, be a political negative for him. If he takes the high road, it might well be a plus. But so far in his presidency, this prospect has not provided Obama with sufficient incentive to take the high road.
UPDATE: In his speech, Obama was his slippery self when it came to President Bush. He acknowledged that Bush is patriotic and cares about the troops — how big of Obama — but gave him no credit for the surge or for liberating Iraq and the region from Saddam Hussein (who went unmentioned).
Obama pointed out that it was from the very desk in the oval office where he was sitting that Bush sent troops into Iraq. Thus, he tried to rub in Bush’s unpopular decision — and contrast it to his more popular one — without mentioning the decision Bush made that turned the situation around and made it possible (or perhaps I should say conceivable) for Obama to exit Iraq honorably.
Obama eventually mentioned the Iraq surge, but only in connection with Afghanistan and by way of patting himself on the back for using the same approach in that theater. But he didn’t acknowledge the fact that the Bush administration crafted and successfully implemented that approach in Iraq.
In sum, Obama tried to give the appearance of graciousness without actually being gracious. Among his many other faults, the man has no class.
I’ll probably say a bit more about other aspects of Obama’s nothing-ish speech later tonight.

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