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Michael Barone / December 8, 2009

Professor Obama as Dutiful Commander in Chief

Every time I visit the White House, I am struck by its military environment.

Military guards are on duty, the staff has lunch in the White House mess and there’s a helicopter pad for Marine One out on the lawn. You see nothing like this in any governor’s office I have visited or in the offices of members of Congress, and certainly not in the headquarters of a political campaign or a community organizer.

This military atmosphere may have seemed congenial to a president who made a career in the military like Dwight Eisenhower, and it was not unfamiliar to those who served in World War II, as his seven successors did. But it can be off-putting to those without military experience, such as the Bill Clinton staffer who refused to speak to Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a snub that required an apology from the president, who had once declared that he loathed the military.

This atmosphere may seem jarring as well to Barack Obama, our only president who lived most of his adult life in university neighborhoods, the part of our society most hostile to the military. But now Obama, who was an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago Law School, is commander, in chief and in a time of war, he must issue commands that will result in the deaths of men and women in uniform.

Watching his Dec. 1 speech announcing his new policy on Afghanistan, I thought I saw two Obamas speaking, the professor and the commander in chief.

He chose a venue even more military than the White House, the Eisenhower Theatre at West Point, and spoke gravely and unsmilingly to the assembled cadets.

“It is in the vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” the commander in chief informed them. And then he added, as if speaking to the faculty club, “After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” The professor continued, in a paragraph twice as long, to recall his opposition to the war in Iraq, to describe what he considered its baleful effects and to segue to a discussion of the “worst economic crisis since the Great Depression” – something that Franklin Roosevelt, who was much closer to that economic crisis, seldom if ever mentioned during World War II.

The commander in chief then noted that the military and their families have “already borne the heaviest of all burdens.” And he mentioned some of his own: The condolence letters he has signed, the visits to Walter Reed, greeting the caskets at Dover Air Force Base.

These acts seem to me an indication that Obama takes seriously his responsibilities as a military commander and that he steels himself to do his duty even when it is unpleasant (as George W. Bush did, though he did not see fit to mention it in his major speeches).

I suspect the rest of us cannot fully appreciate the psychic burden of ordering into harm’s way men and women whom you see in front of you and shake hands with. Only the most cynical person, more cynical than any of our presidents, could fail to be affected by this, and this commander in chief devoted several paragraphs to explaining why he believed the war in Afghanistan was worth the sacrifices it must entail.

Then the professor also chimed in, addressing complaints he might hear on campus. This time, he said, the allies will provide more troops (though they haven’t promised to do so), we’ll clamp down on corruption in Afghanistan, and no, this is not another Vietnam. And we won’t spend so much on guns to cut down the supply of butter to the big government programs Democrats favor at home.

But there was one word the professor would not allow the commander in chief to utter.

Presidents often refer to the words of their predecessors, and in his peroration Obama said, “We will go forward with the confidence that right makes might.” Alas, this is not always so: Think of the millions who died under Nazism and communism.

Still, the rhyme does echo a ringing phrase in Franklin Roosevelt’s speech to Congress the day after Pearl Harbor, which triggered the most tumultuous applause of the day. “The American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.” Too bad we didn’t hear that last word from this commander in chief at West Point.

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