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Legacy Content / NATIONAL SECURITY

Obama's Next Mission: Restoring Economy

Time To Build Within U.S. Borders Is Now, Obama Says In Speech Marking End Of Combat In Iraq

September 1, 2010

Updated at 8:03 a.m.

President Obama declared an end to the American combat mission in Iraq and signaled a renewed administration effort to jumpstart the moribund economy, arguing that it was time for the U.S. to focus on nation-building within its own borders rather than overseas.

 

The president used his high-profile Oval Office address Tuesday night to pay tribute to the American troops who fought and died in Iraq, praising them for having "completed every mission they were given."

Obama also tried to salve some of the lingering partisan divisions over a war he had personally opposed. During the 2008 campaign, Obama harshly criticized President Bush's decision to invade Iraq. On Tuesday, by contrast, Obama said that "no one can doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security."

The speech was timed to the departure of the last combat troops from Iraq, but the speech dealt extensively with the economy. Obama said his primary focus as president in the months ahead would be on domestic issues like the stagnant economy, the nation's sky-high unemployment rate, and the growing U.S. reliance on foreign oil.

"Our most urgent task is to restore our economy, and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work," Obama said in the speech, just the second he has delivered from the Oval Office since his inauguration. "This will be difficult. But in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility."

More broadly, Obama said that America's ability to project power around the world was dependent on having a strong economic foundation at home, an argument he and other top officials have been making repeatedly in recent months.

Last week, for instance, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen warned that "the most significant threat to our national security is our debt."

Mullen, the military's highest-ranking officer, said the nation's future economic strength would dictate whether defense budgets would shrink or remain constant.

Obama, for his part, has tried to shift the terms of the traditional partisan debate over national security from an exclusive focus on U.S. military might to a broader discussion of America's domestic needs and place in the world.

During a West Point speech last December announcing his decision to escalate the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan, Obama said the U.S. had "failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy" and could no longer "simply afford to ignore the price of these wars."

"Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power," the president said at West Point. "That's why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended -- because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own."

Obama sounded similar themes Tuesday night. The president said Americans have long understood that the "nation's strength and influence abroad must be firmly anchored in our prosperity at home," particularly a strong and growing middle class.

"Unfortunately, over the last decade, we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity," he said. "We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits."

Skittish Democratic lawmakers have been calling on the president to speak more explicitly about the economy, citing polls showing that voter unhappiness with the administrations inability to bring the recession to a close is endangering the Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.

Obama has now done so, but it's unclear if his efforts will pay off. The president, after all, wasn't able to argue that voters would see a peace dividend from the end of the combat mission in Iraq. Instead, he devoted several paragraphs of his speech to the ongoing escalation in Afghanistan, which administration officials acknowledge will come at a high cost in terms of both American blood and treasure.

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