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Erie, PA. Presidential speeches are evaluated in two basic areas, style/delivery and substance. President Obama’s Afghanistan speech was well delivered. The president appeared serious, determined, candid, and was articulate. Coming on the heels of a president who was often awkward and fumbling in his speeches, Obama’s rhetorical skill is a welcome change. Yet style is no substitute for substance. Superficially considered, the president’s address was excellent. On substantive grounds, where the stuff of politics is made, the speech was odd. There was something incongruous about the style and substance of the speech.

It may be that the president is learning that politics is the art of the possible and that governing and political campaigning require different skills, visions, and tactics. That Obama was more idealistic during last year’s campaign is no surprise. That he has struggled to strike the same tone in raising expectations regarding the possibilities of politics is also no surprise. The healthcare debate has surely frustrated the president as has the economy, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The campaign rhetoric about changing the world and changing everything is rubbing up against the realities of typical political life.

During the campaign, Senator Obama needed to bolster his foreign policy credentials. As a campaign strategy, he had to find a way to distinguish himself from Senator McCain and at the same time, avoid appearing soft on terrorism and unprepared to be commander-in-chief. Candidate Obama chose Afghanistan as the dividing line between the Bush/McCain Republicans and his approach to American foreign policy. The strategy made sense in the context of the campaign but as the president’s speech on Afghanistan indicates, it does not translate well into effective foreign policy. Iraq was the undoing of the Bush presidency and the Republican Party. It made no political or policy sense for Obama to support a continued war in Iraq. McCain was stuck politically with Iraq. He could not easily abandon a policy he had been supporting in the Senate for years. Like a boxer who has studied his opponent’s weaknesses and tendencies, Obama saw an opportunity to both tie McCain to the unpopular Bush and to the unpopular war in Iraq while creating an alternative vision of foreign policy that shifted the focus from Iraq to Afghanistan which, after all, was the breeding ground for the September 11 attacks against the U.S. Obama committed himself then, but not in his recent speech, to capturing Osama bin Laden. He appeared to refocus American foreign policy on the real battleground of terrorism and play a strong hand in an area of the campaign considered his greatest weakness. As campaign strategy, it was an astute maneuver.

There was, of course, a risk to the strategy. If Obama committed himself to shifting the war on terror to Afghanistan, he could not easily retract his position once in office. However it was done, troops would have to leave Iraq and more troops would have to be sent to Afghanistan. The president would have to do something in this vein to match his campaign rhetoric. He struggled for almost a year to figure out what that something was, and in his speech to West Point Cadets he outlined his long-awaited Afghanistan policy. In the speech, the president argued that for Americans, the Afghanistan-Pakistani border region “has become the most dangerous place in the world” and that “the safety of people around the world is at stake.” Consequently, because American security and interests are at stake, the president is sending thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan. The troop increases and mission represent a surge with a timeline that has as its objective American withdraw from Afghanistan by 2011.

If the president’s assumptions about the importance of the region are correct, it seems incongruous to attach a timeline to the war. Yet, if viewed from the perspective of Obama’s campaign strategy and his first State of the Union Address, the policy makes more sense. In his 2009 State of the Union Address, the president created a long list of ambitious policy objectives that included ending the Iraq War, fixing the economy, reforming the healthcare system, cleaning up the environment, fixing social security, rebuilding American infrastructure, creating new energy policy, reforming American schools, and accelerating the war in Afghanistan. All of these objectives and more would be done while reducing the federal budget deficit. Wanting to keep to his campaign promise and understanding the political need to establish himself as a competent commander-in-chief, the president created an Afghanistan policy that will not infringe on the rest of his ambitious policy agenda.

Readers of the Front Porch Republic Magazine are likely to recognize the immodesty in the president’s agenda and the danger of a brand of democracy that too often leads to populist campaign strategy determining actual governing policies. Candidate Obama would have had a tough time arguing that both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan need to end. He needed Afghanistan to convince voters that he was up to the job of leading the strongest military in the world. Now that he is in office he feels compelled to honor his commitment to a policy that he supports halfheartedly. His tepid commitment to Afghanistan will, however, bring him to a place he likely wanted to be during the campaign but could not go for fear it would cost him the election: opposition to both wars.

The president is far more sober about Afghanistan than healthcare. He is willing to spend tremendous political capital to change a healthcare system that provides the best healthcare in the world. He is far less willing to change the part of the world that he considers the most dangerous to Americans. I would like to think that the president’s attitude toward Afghanistan represents a maturity that comes with governing and that will carry over to other areas of presidential politics. My fear is that it is the product of a campaign strategy that helped him to win an election but will lead to disaster in Afghanistan. There are many reasons to question the increasingly populist flavor of American politics. The president’s foreign policy in Afghanistan can now be counted among them.

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Dr. Michael P. Federici is Professor of Political Science at Mercyhurst College. He is in his twentieth year of college teaching. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from The Catholic University of American in Washington, D.C. (1990), his M.A. from CUA in 1985, and his B.S. in Economics from Elizabethtown College in 1983. Dr. Federici has published two books, The Challenge of Populism (1991) and Eric Voegelin: The Restoration of Order (2002) and several articles and book reviews. He has a forthcoming book, an edited volume of Orestes Brownson’s political writings (ISI Books), due out in 2010 and he is currently working on The Political Theory of Alexander Hamilton to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Dr. Federici’s teaching and research areas include American Government, Constitutional Law, Civil Liberties, Political Theory, and American Political Thought. Dr. Federici has taught American Government for the Junior Statesmen Foundation Summer School at Yale University and Georgetown University. He won the Joseph Friedl Award at Concord College that is given to the professor who “Exemplifies the true essence of the college professor” and he won the “Distinguished Teaching Award” at Mercyhurst College in 2004. Dr. Federici participated in a debate January 29, 2008 at Georgetown University sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Tocqueville Forum on “America: Empire or Republic?” The debate is available on the web at: http://isi.org/lectures/lectures.aspx. He also gave a lecture at Notre Dame Law School in April 2008. He is currently president of the Mercyhurst College Faculty Senate and serves on the College’s Board of Trustees. He was recently appointed to the Editorial Board of the journal Humanitas and to the Board of Directors of The Academy of Philosophy and Letters. In August 2002, he was one of a select group of American scholars invited to deliver a paper during the Chinese Comparative Literature Association’s Conference in Nanjing, China. In 1993 Dr. Federici participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Thomas Jefferson that was held at The University of Virginia and The College of William and Mary. He was a Distinguished Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. In 2004 he wrote a winning grant application to the U.S. Department of Education for a $984,920 three-year grant from the Teaching American History Program for the Corry Area School District. In 2005 he wrote another successful TAHG for the Erie City School District for $499,736. He served as the Project Director for both grants. Professor Federici has been interviewed for local and national media including WJET TV, WICU TV, WSEE TV, C-SPAN, WQLN Radio, WJET Radio, WNYC Radio, WBEN Radio (Buffalo), The Erie Times News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and CQ Weekly.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Oddly, those who would have distrusted him if he didn’t show that he could be a tough commander in chief are among the voices who question what we are doing in Afghanistan. There is nothing in electoral politics that requires voters to be consistent in their demands.

    He probably couldn’t simply pull out. There are real dangers — especially if our departure destablizes Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal, and the presence of al Qaeda and a home-grown Taliban. But if people can’t stomach a long war, he can’t commit to one — he’s only the president, not the monarch, and he knows it.

    It would be a mistake to think we can bring “democracy” to Afghanistan. It would also be a mistake to think we can keep troops on the ground if people in Afghanistan don’t see some benefit in terms of the quality of their life. Working with existing tribal loyalties and customs while weeding out the worst corruption is a delicate balancing act.

    I definitely support Rep. Dave Obey’s proposal to impose a surtax to pay for the war. Fighting wars by deficit spending was on of Bush’s worst choices. Its part of why soldiers rotating in and out of a war zone, while most of the civilians are partying like “War? What war?” are going insane. If we ask them to put their lives on the line, the least we can do is pay what it costs to keep them there, not in the future with interest, now, to share a little of the sacrifice.

  2. On the one hand you have the Taleban and Al Queda who the West perceives as having prostituted their virtue by trying to impose a theocratic dictatorship and on the other hand much of the Middle East sees the West as the Great Satan where the rich have prostituted their virtue by greedily corrupting government and generally being responsible for maintaining a faux democracy in many aspects of life. Commonsense dictates that you refuse to believe in either deranged mind-set thrust at you by the media and most certainly don’t support money being wasted to support either sociopathic ideology.

  3. I suppose this is what happens when a person is elected on the basis of their eloquence when compared against the previous President who, to his credit, described his own mouth as “where words go to die”…(this assumes they were ever living a few inches aft and above his mouth) but, I am waiting for a little of that touted eloquence and am not too confident because the World’s longest run of Goethe’s Faust has come home to roost in Washington D.C.. Eloquence is hard to muster when you inhabit a dung heap.

    Then again, we can simply adjust the value of the word “eloquence” and be happy with what we get.

  4. “war on terror”, which war is that? Is that the one where the Empire invades a sovereign county to ensure that their oil becomes our oil while lining the pockets of a corporate sponsored elite that has liberated themselves from the burden of considering the common good? I hope so, those arrogant Mohammedan bastards! Thinking that they could somehow impede me from driving to 7-11 and poking Twinkies down my diabetic pie hole. Frankly, it makes me sick. Fortunately I have the “healthcare system that provides the best healthcare in the world.” Of course since I lost my job I don’t have any access to it, but by dangy I too “question the increasingly populist flavor of American politics.”

    (Do you ever read this blog?)

  5. By the end of the campaign, there was really no fundamental difference between Obama’s Iraq policy and McCain’s.

  6. OF course AML, one of the funny things about current events is that they do not wait for the schedule of presidential campaigns. Carter would have loved to get the hostages freed from Tehran in October 1980, but it didn’t happen until November. The government of Iraq told GWB in no uncertain terms that the American troops were getting out, soon, and there was a treaty to renegotiate. So, McCain couldn’t campaign on “stay the course” anymore, the democratically elected government we were upholding as the fruit of our sacrifice was telling us to go. Obama could have said, see, I was right, even the Iraqi government wants us out. But nobody wanted to hear it, and he knew it. He wanted to talk about the economy.

  7. More eloquence yesterday in Scandinavia and on the surface, the oratory was better than the average sort and included a little poking the locals in the eye for our defending europe against her own lunatic Fascists but then we arrive at a minor problem. Most of the lecture…and it was a lecture….was on the Just War and that a Peace Prize could be awarded to the Commander in Chief of a Just War because, well….because. Concurrent with the President’s stirring exhortation that one must never sully one’s traditions no matter what hazard…his own Justice Department is defending and protecting the patsy John Yoo who, just following orders like an eager puppy dog, gave legal cover to violating certain august traditions and laws . To add further discomfit, this Justice Dept, actively sullying any number of traditions, it is doing so for Yoo on the anniversary of the Nuremberg trials when the United States insisted upon prosecuting certain Nazi Legal Experts for providing safe legal harbor for their leader’s perfidious acts. It is a fine and enjoyable thing to possess the definition of morality and tradition held by winners everywhere.

    Change, be it ever so humble.

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