President Barack Obama made it official Tuesday: Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the nation’s No. 1 priority is fixing the economy.
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“The end of our combat mission in Iraq” comes at “a time of great uncertainty for many Americans,” Obama said in a nationally televised address from the Oval Office of the White House.
“But this milestone should serve as a reminder to all Americans that the future is ours to shape if we move forward with confidence and commitment,” he added. “It should also serve as a message to the world that the United States of America intends to sustain and strengthen our leadership in this young century.”
And it opens up another opportunity “to rebuild our nation here at home,” the president said, declaring that “now, it is time to turn the page.”
The last full U.S. combat brigade actually left Iraq two weeks ago. But Obama waited to mark the end of the combat mission until Tuesday, the deadline he’d announced in February, and he did it without declaring victory, saying that while Iraq’s security was now in the hands of the Iraqis, the advance had had come “a huge price” for the United States.
“We have sent our young men and women to make enormous sacrifices in Iraq and spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home,” he said.
Now it is time to “put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work,” he said. “This will be difficult. But in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people and my central responsibility as president.”
The president gave no specifics on how he intended to do that, however, saying it was incumbent on the American people to join him in attacking problems at home with “energy and grit and sense of common purpose.”
‘Violence will not end’ in Iraq
Obama’s pledge to end the war helped catapult him into office. Now, as president, he is intent on reassuring Americans and the stretched U.S. military that all the work and bloodshed in Iraq wasn’t in vain.
Obama was careful not to repeat what has come to be considered one of the biggest mistakes of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who boarded an aircraft carrier in May 2003 to deliver a triumphant speech before a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.”
Seven years later, Obama was again declaring an end to the Iraq war, but he was doing it from the sober confines of the White House’s Oval Office.
“But ultimately,” he said, “these terrorists will fail to achieve their goals. Iraqis are a proud people. They have rejected sectarian war, and they have no interest in endless destruction.”
Obama spoke Tuesday with Bush, who made a similar proclamation seven years ago. Neither the White House nor aides to Bush would reveal what was said in the call, but in his speech, Obama called Bush a “patriot” and credited his “support for our troops [and] his love of country and commitment to our security.”
David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, said in an interview on CNN that the call was brief but cordial.
“Whether you agree or disagree, it was a day to pay tribute to the troops,” Axelrod said, “and he felt to touch base with the former president was the right thing to do.”
Cost of the war
Obama warned that political paralysis and sectarian violence still clouded the country’s future, saying it was important that Iraq’s leaders “move forward with a sense of urgency to form an inclusive government that is just, representative and accountable to the Iraqi people.”
“When that government is in place, there should be no doubt: The Iraqi people will have a strong partner in the United States,” he said.
Part of bolstering that strength is ensuring the recovery of the American economy, he said.
“This will be difficult,” he said. “But in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people and my central responsibility as president.”
In that light, Obama said his administration would focus on jobs, education and entrepreneurship, without offering any specific initiatives.
“To strengthen our middle class, we must give all our children the education they deserve and all our workers the skills that they need to compete in a global economy,” he said. “We must jump-start industries that create jobs and end our dependence on foreign oil.”
And “we must unleash the innovation that allows new products to roll off our assembly lines and nurture the ideas that spring from our entrepreneurs,” he added.
New tone from a new venue
The speech was only the second Obama has delivered from the Oval Office, which debuted a new look Tuesday night. The office was overhauled while the Obamas were on vacation last week, and even as TV reporters reported from the White House lawn Tuesday, hammering could still be heard in the background.
Reflecting the economic tenor of Obama’s remarks, the White House was quick to stress that the redesign was funded by Obama’s inaugural committee, working through the nonprofit White House Historical Association.
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