Obama changes tone to reach military voters

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama has begun trying to reach military voters from the campaign trail, praising soldiers’ accomplishments and scaling back his portrayal of soldiers as wounded warriors dependent on government services.

“If he is making a conscious effort to not regard soldiers as victims, but actually as heroes … it is appropriate for the [political] time, and I certainly hope he keeps it up,” said Tom Donnelly, director of defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

By posing with soldiers to emphasize his role as commander in chief, “Lots of [voters] will say, ‘He killed Osama [bin Laden],’” Donnelly added. “It’s a lot better than people saying, ‘What about that economy?’”

Obama is “adept at speaking to the military about how returning vets have to find gainful employment, get adequate care,” said Peter Feaver, a politics professor at Duke University.

But, ”where he has a hard time talking is when describing their work as heroic, as having accomplished something significant,” he said.

On Wednesday, Obama is visiting the 82nd Airborne’s troops at Fort Bragg.

The base is in swing-state North Carolina. His pubic support for soldiers may also win him more support among veterans and ordinary voters in other swing states, such as Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio.

Obama lost support among those voters in 2008, when he described them as people who “cling to their guns and religion.”

The Dec. 14 Fort Bragg visit follows an outing to the Army vs. Navy football game on Dec. 10, and a joint visit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to the Arlington National Cemetery on Dec. 12.

Since August, many — but not all — of his scripted statements have been more complimentary. For example, when talking about his disengagement from Iraq, the president is now complimenting U.S. soldiers for accomplishing what decades of sanctions and divisions of diplomats failed to accomplish — the installation of of an elected government in place of Saddam Hussein.

“We’re here to mark the end of this war,” Obama said in his Dec. 12 press conference with Maliki, whom he described as “the elected leader of a sovereign, self-reliant and democratic Iraq,”

“Let us never forget those who gave us this chance — the untold number of Iraqis who have given their lives; more than one million Americans, military and civilian, who have served in Iraq; nearly 4,500 fallen Americans who gave their last full measure of devotion; tens of thousands of wounded warriors, and so many inspiring military families,” he said.

That’s a more positive tone than in his Oct. 21 declaration from the White House briefing room that all troops would be withdrawn from Iraq, despite the Iraqi officials’ requests for support.

“This December will be a time to reflect on all that we’ve been though in this war,” he said. “We’ll honor our many wounded warriors and the nearly 4,500 American patriots — and their Iraqi and coalition partners — who gave their lives to this effort,” said Obama.

During that six-minute wrap up of the Iraq campaign, Obama did not mention the removal of Saddam, the bloody rejection by Iraqi Muslims of al-Qaida’s forces in Iraq, the establishment of a democracy or any other accomplishments by American soldiers.

Obama’s negative tone towards the military has colored statements by White House officials since the 2008 campaign, when he promised to withdraw from Iraq, even if the departure was followed by a massive and bloody civil war.

The president and first lady Michelle Obama, for example, have routinely depicted U.S. soldiers as wounded dependents of the welfare state, not as trained and disciplined warriors who have volunteered to risk their lives for the nation’s benefit.

At a July 4, 2011 White House event, for example, Obama introduced four heroes of the Iraq campaign, who were depicted as victims.

“Even after being wounded by shrapnel himself, [Sgt. Justin Gang] helped to secure the scene and evacuate his wounded comrades to safety. … Hospitalman First Class Obi Nwagwu, born in Nigeria … helps our wounded warriors regain their strength and resume their lives back home. … Whether it’s partnering with Iraqi Army or making sure our troops have shelter in some of the toughest places on the planet, [Sgt. Heather Adkins ] knows how to get things done. … Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Keith Kesterson … rushed through enemy fire to free a fellow Marine trapped inside a burning vehicle,” Obama declared.

Other Democrats have followed Obama’s lead, and, rather than praising soldiers’ ability to destroy the Jihadists, they have depicted them as dependent on the services provided by Democrats.

“Think about all that we’ve been able to do to help our veterans and our military families get the education, the employment and the benefits they’ve earned, because we believe in this country that we should serve our men and women in uniform and their families as well as they have served us,” the first lady told an Oct. 27 fundraiser in Tampa, Fla.

At an Oct. 17 event, she praised Sears for offering to hire 30,000 veterans. “That’s exactly what we’re hoping to see happen. … [It is an] example of how America’s businesses can look out for our heroes, particularly during these tough economic times,” she gushed. “It represents the best that our country has to offer.”

The condescending tone, however, contrasts with enthusiastic and complimentary speeches given when Obama praises his allies.

On Oct. 21, shortly after his six-minute announcement of a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Obama spent 20 minutes effusively complimenting scientists.

“Thanks to the men and women on the stage, we are one step closer to curing diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s. … I hope everybody enjoys this wonderful celebration and reception, and again, thank you so much for helping to make the world a better place.”

A possible unwillingness to praise the military’s successes has accompanied repeated grabs for some of their feats.

“Think about how this president finally brought to justice the man behind the 9/11 attacks and so many other horrific acts,” the first lady said in Tampa.

At a May 19 speech at the Department of State, Obama declared that he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “have dealt al-Qaida a huge blow by killing its leader, Osama bin Laden.”

Obama’s recurring tin ear for the military’s accomplishments is tied to his standoffish personality, said Feaver.

“There is an aloofness to President Obama that many people say shows up in many settings. … People who work at the White House say there’s coldness to it, a calculatedness to to it,” he said.

Over the last few months, however, Obama and his staff have tried to bring the president closer to the voters. These days, for example, he tries to meet people at the rope lines after his speeches, said Feaver.

That gap between Obama and his soldiers, said Donnelly, is partly caused by Obama’s distance from middle-class Americans. “Obama is a Hyde Park, Harvard Law, eastern elite guy,” while most soldiers are middle-class, he said.

Vice President Joe Biden, in contrast, seems more comfortable with troops.

In a Dec. 1 speech in Iraq, for example, Biden told U.S. and Iraqi soldiers that the Iraq campaign “is an incredible accomplishment, and is due to the work of so many of you in this room, and also the hundreds of thousands of others who have walked in your boots and in your shoes.”

Former President George W. Bush was more comfortable with soldiers than Obama, said Feaver. “It was clear that [Bush] liked the troops, the troops liked Bush. He liked to joke around with them and there was a familiarity and ease that does not show up with President Obama,” Feaver said.

However, Obama saw how powerful soldiers can be once the SEAL Team 6 handed him his greatest foreign policy success — killing Osama bin Laden in May. “I’m sure he could show warm interactions with the SEALs,” Feaver said.

At a November 30 fundraiser, for example, Obama gave the SEALs credit for bin Laden’s death, saying, “Thanks to our brave men and women in uniform, al-Qaida is weaker than it has ever been and Osama bin Laden will never walk this Earth again.”

“He’s the commander in chief,” said Donnelly. “He’s got to do it, and he’s had plenty of time to learn.”

“It’s been a long time coming.”

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