WASHINGTON — Florida was still getting to know Barack Obama when he showed up for a rally in Tampa in May 2008, but his message seized the mood. "We are at a defining moment in our history," the candidate declared to 15,000 people at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"Our nation is not only involved in a war that we must win in Afghanistan, but it is also involved in a war that I believe should have never been authorized and should have never been waged that has cost hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives and has not made us more safe."
Today, Obama returns to Tampa and U.S. Central Command in the early stages of a new war in the Middle East, pulled by circumstance — and, critics charge, his own missteps — into an open-ended conflict that could shape his legacy.
The man who inherited a divisive and bloody war will most likely pass the new conflict along to his successor.
"It's one of the ironies we constantly see in a changing world," said Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who worked for four presidents. "He told us what he believed and in a sense, he did it by stopping the war in Iraq and winding it down in Afghanistan. But times change. A president gets on an escalator and it keeps moving."
In a blunt reversal, Obama is justifying his moves, and sidestepping congressional approval, by relying on Bush-era laws that he sharply criticized as a candidate and a year ago called for repealing to move the United States off a "perpetual wartime footing."
"I have very much mixed feelings," said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who first ran in 2006 on a similar antiwar message as Obama and contends it would be an "abdication of constitutional responsibility" for Congress not to vote on a new Authorization for Use of Military Force.
"I'd rather be investing in infrastructure in America. I'd rather be investing in making college more affordable," Castor said. "But the alternative is worse to allow ISIS to continue to grow and threaten our allies. It's simply untenable not to do something at this point."
Trapped between conservatives who say he has been weak on foreign policy and liberals who say his aggressive use of drones and failure to shutter to the prison at Guantanamo Bay betray his intentions as a candidate, Obama will try today in Tampa to fill out his plan to attack Islamic militants.
He conceded the delicacy of his own past during a nationally televised speech last week, casting the action not as war but a "counterterrorism campaign," and emphasizing that combat troops would not be used.
"We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq," said Obama, who the Washington Post reported, had rejected advice from Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the CentCom commander, to deploy a modest number of ground troops to work alongside Iraqi troops in fighting militants.
Republican lawmakers have increasingly said all options should be considered, and a top military official on Tuesday opened the door for troops.
Obama's "stated policy is that we will not have U.S. ground forces in direct combat but he has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis," Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Antiwar protesters interrupted the meeting several times, a flashback to the tumultuous debate of years past. Obama is moving ahead at a time of a swift rise in public support, driven in part by the beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker, but history shows the potential pitfalls.
"The real problem for him is mission creep," said Aaron David Miller, an expert on the Middle East with the Woodrow Wilson Center, adding that ISIS would relish pulling the United States into a ground fight.
Miller said Obama is not being inconsistent:
"If you read his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize speech, you see how fundamentally risk-ready he is and how prepared he is to accept the inevitability of the United States using force. This is hardly a break."
Still, the prospect of another protracted, financially costly fight stands in contrast to the forces that propelled Obama to the Democratic nomination in 2008. He criticized rival Hillary Clinton for her 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq and then harnessed public sentiment in the general election with Republican Sen. John McCain.
"It's time to stop spending $10 billion a month in Iraq and start investing that money in Phoenix, Nashville, Seattle and metro areas across this country," Obama said during a speech in Miami in June 2008.
His goal to focus more at home and later desire to redirect U.S. interest to Asia has been repeatedly upended by flare-ups in the Middle East. GOP critics say Obama was so determined to achieve a campaign promise that he withdrew troops too fast from Iraq, giving militants a foothold. His defenders point, in part, to the failed leadership of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who ostracized Sunnis that have flocked to militants.
"We are where we are because of numerous decisions that he made which were flawed and overruling the advice of his military," McCain said in an interview Tuesday, citing Obama's refusal last year to arm rebels in Syria.
"I'm glad he's going down there," McCain said of CentCom. "Maybe he'll learn something."
Gen. John Abizaid, former CentCom commander, once described the fight against extremism as "the long war," a generational struggle.
Obama, as he visits Tampa today, begins to write his own chapter.
Contact Alex Leary at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @learyreports.
Motorcade expected to affect traffic
TAMPA — Drivers and workers in downtown Tampa will be affected this morning as President Barack Obama's motorcade heads from his hotel to MacDill Air Force Base.
Part of Tampa Street was closed Tuesday night as the president arrived to spend the night at the downtown Hilton Hotel.
In a traffic advisory, the city said commuters heading south of Kennedy Boulevard should allow for extra travel time this morning, and any detours and closures would be posted on electronic message boards.