Politics across the Water's Edge
SPEAKING IN ST. LOUIS ON JULY 5, 2008, then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama outlined his plans for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq: “The tactics of how we ensure our troops are safe as we pull out, how we execute the withdrawal, those are things that are all based on facts and conditions. I am not somebody—unlike George Bush—who is willing to ignore facts on the basis of my preconceived notions” (Loven 2008). In his statement, Obama accused President Bush, in effect, of ignoring reality in his Iraq policies, and implied that his own promised timetable for withdrawal might be adapted to reflect the actual situation there.
Obama's statement drew heavy coverage throughout the news media and exposed the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to sharp criticism from both the Left and the Right for his apparent “flip- flop” regarding withdrawal (Hurst 2008), especially among online commentators (Harper 2008). Upon calling another press conference to refine his stance mere hours after making his initial statement, Obama confessed that he was “a little puzzled by the frenzy that I set off with what I thought was a pretty innocuous statement” (Reuters 2008).1 The campaign of Republican candidate John McCain in turn attacked Obama both for his initial speech and for his subsequent puzzlement about the furor. “What's really puzzling is that Barack Obama still doesn't understand that his words matter,” said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds (Reuters 2008).
This incident brings into focus several vital components of public opinion and foreign policy in the modern American context. First, it illustrates that the statements of politicians, which studies of politics often dismiss as “cheap talk,” can be consequential. Second, it highlights the importance of events on the ground in a conflict even as it demonstrates the degree to which politicians can politicize and manipulate public perceptions of such “reality.” Third, Obama's puzzlement regarding why this particular statement provoked such massive media comment draws attention to the news choices of journalists, who generally stand between
1Interestingly, Obama's statement about troop withdrawal timelines (complete with a
near-instantaneous follow- up press conference to clarify his remarks) was a repeat of a
similar series of events earlier in the week (Cooper and Zeleny 2008), which probably mag-
nified its impact.