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Difficult Days Ahead? We've Heard That Before

In wrapping up his 22-minute speech today on new U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama cautioned Americans not to expect quick results.

"So understand, the road ahead will be long and there will be difficult days ahead," he said.

"Difficult days ahead?" If it sounds familiar, it's for good reason. We've heard that admonition many times before from Mr. Obama's predecessors.

As recently as last December, while making his final visit as president to Afghanistan, George W. Bush asked and answered his own question about the situation there, though his grammar was off.

"And so, is there still difficult days ahead? Absolutely. But are the conditions a lot better today in Afghanistan than they were in 2001? Unquestionably, undoubtedly, they're better," Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush used the same phrase at least three other times over the years: twice in offering assessments about Iraq, and once more in describing conditions in New Orleans a week after Hurricane Katrina struck:

  • "There are difficult days ahead, and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic. Yet our coalition is strong, our efforts are focused and unrelenting, and no power of the enemy will stop Iraq's progress."

    -May 24, 2004, at the Army War College, Carlisle, Pa.

  • "We have many difficult days ahead, especially as we recover those who did not survive the storm. I've instructed all agencies to honor their memory by treating the dead with the dignity and respect they deserve."

    -Sept. 8, 2005, in a White House statement about recovery efforts in the area hit by Katrina.

  • "Securing freedom in Iraq has required great sacrifice, Mr. President. You know that better than anybody. And there's going to be difficult days ahead. Yet I have no doubt about the impact of a democratic Iraq on the rest of the world."

    -Sept. 13, 2005, at a joint press conference in the East Room with President Jalal Talabani of Iraq.

    The phrase of course predates both Presidents Bush and Obama. At a news conference on Feb. 18, 1982, President Ronald Reagan used those words in talking about his efforts to reverse a downturn in the economy.

    "We aren't out of the woods yet. There will still be some difficult days ahead. But at least we're heading toward a clearing," Mr. Reagan said.

    In fact, we've been hearing our Presidents talk about "difficult days" for decades.

    In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president on Sept. 2, 1916, Woodrow Wilson spoke of keeping the U.S. out of the war in Europe so that America could reserve its strength and resources for the "difficult days of restoration" that were to come.

    Franklin Roosevelt referred to the "difficult days" of the Great Depression, in a letter accepting the resignation of his Treasury Secretary W. H. Woodin. FDR would use that phrase at least nine more times during his terms in office.

    And then four days after Roosevelt's death, the new President, Harry Truman, addressed a joint session of Congress.

    "In the difficult days ahead," said Mr. Truman, "unquestionably we shall face problems of staggering proportions. However, with the faith of our fathers in our hearts, we do not fear the future."

    A few weeks before the presidential election of 1960, John F. Kennedy told a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that his political approach was more realistic than that of his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon.

    "If you recall the sober lessons of history," said JFK, "if you realize with some perspective that in these difficult days only the best is good enough, then under those conditions, I ask your help."

    A search of JFK's presidential speeches and correspondence shows that at least 32 times, he spoke of "difficult days." One of those occasions was in a 1962 letter to former CBS News correspondent Edward R. Murrow, then serving in the Kennedy administration as Director of the U.S. Information. Kennedy offered thanks for the role of USIA and the Voice of America during the "difficult days" of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    Every president since FDR but one, Dwight Eisenhower, at one time or another, spoke publicly of "difficult days."

    What history shows is America is never through confronting them.

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