Obama Dropping “Nation At War” Rhetoric?


Without talking about it explicitly, President Barack Obama seems to be trying to guide the nation beyond its state of post-9/11 trauma. In the first days of his presidency, I noted that he had cut back—by design—the use of the phrase “war on terror.” Now the White House has acknowledged that the Obama administration has purposefully made fewer references to the United States being a “nation at war.”

On Thursday, this interesting exchange occurred at the daily White House briefing between a reporter and press secretary Robert Gibbs:

Q: President Bush used to say repeatedly, “America is a nation at war.” He did so on 9/11, but other occasions during the year. My impression is that since taking office, President Obama has purposely tried to turn down the heat on the rhetoric.

A: Well, look, I think we’ve certainly cut down on the use of the phrase, but, again, our focus is on getting the policy right. I don’t—I think the President spends part of each of his day in meetings about and thinking about the men and women that we have in Iraq and Afghanistan and that are through— stationed throughout the world to protect our freedom and to address Islamic extremism. And that takes up part of his day and is something that—the sacrifice which he’s thankful for and I think all of us are thankful for each and every day. Regardless of how it’s phrased, he’s mindful of the effort of so many on our behalf.

It was surprising for Gibbs to actually admit that the White House had turned away from using this dramatic rhetoric—it’s accurate. The United States is a nation at war twice over. But saying so repeatedly is an exercise in defining the country, and eight years after 9/11, Obama clearly wants to step back from turning “at war” into an essential part of the nation’s self-image.

I thought that conservatives who delight in beating war drums would pounce on Gibbs for this remark. And one can easily hear their thunderous argument: Of course, we are a nation at war; why won’t Obama and his socialist pals in the White House say so? Yet so far, they don’t appear to have zeroed in on this comment.

When Gibbs said this, I thought it demonstrated a certain maturity on the part of the Obama White House. While no citizen should forget that US troops are dying and killing in two countries–and that these wars need to be resolved—is no need to make war a defining characteristic of the United States, not even when the threat from al Qaeda remains, not even on the anniversary of 9/11.

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  • David Corn

    David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief and an on-air analyst for MSNBC. He is the co-author (with Michael Isikoff) of Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. He is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, Showdown, Hubris (with Isikoff), and The Lies of George W. Bush, as well as the e-book, 47 Percent: Uncovering the Romney Video that Rocked the 2012 Election. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter and Facebook.