Obama lavishes campaign-trail praise on soldiers

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama poured one compliment after another onto an audience of soldiers Dec. 14, and even came close to endorsing the Iraq campaign that he has denigrated since 2002.

“You are part of an unbroken line of heroes spanning two centuries — from the colonists who overthrew an empire, to your grandparents and parents who faced down fascism and communism, to you — men and women who fought for the same principles in Fallujah and Kandahar, and delivered justice to those who attacked us on 9/11,” Obama declared at Fort Bragg, the North Carolina base of the U.S. 82nd paratroop division.

If that wasn’t enough, Obama also told the soldiers that “unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory or for resources. We do it because it’s right.”

Media coverage of the event downplayed the extent of Obama’s scripted praise for the experienced soldiers. Neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times, for example, included the statements quoted above.

The flattering message was a remarkable 180 degree turn from his earlier description of soldiers as victims dependent on social-welfare and medical services offered by the Democratic coalition.

“Nothing concentrates the mind like a re-election campaign,” said Eliot Cohen, director of the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Obama’s speech was pitched to soldiers, veterans and their spouses, as well as the many Americans who doubt his respect for the military. It was delivered in swing-state North Carolina, which he which he won by a very narrow margin in 2008.

The speech included a mixture of unfamiliar praise for the soldiers’ professional accomplishments alongside a familiar list of welfare benefits offered to soldiers’ families by the Democratic coalition. (RELATED: Full coverage of Barack Obama)

First lady Michelle Obama began the event by touting some of the spending programs and benefits supposedly arranged by the president.

“Businesses are hiring tens of thousands of veterans and military spouses…. [Obama] has taken unprecedented steps to improve mental health care,” she said. “He’s cut taxes for businesses that hire a veteran or a wounded warrior.  And he has kept his promise to responsibly bring you home from Iraq.”

Obama’s text commingled praise and promises, saying “on behalf of a grateful nation, I’m proud to finally say these two words, and I know your families agree:  Welcome home!”

He downplayed his opposition and that of many Democrats to the Iraq campaign. “It was a source of great controversy here at home, with patriots on both sides of the debate,” Obama said, ignoring his fellow Democrats’ bitter claims that Republicans supported the campaign by lying over chemical and biological weapons, and because they wanted to get at Iraq’s oil or aid Israel.

In fact, the campaign opened a second front in the war against al-Qaida’s jihadis, ended a 12-year economic embargo on Iraq, removed a brutal dictator, recruited Muslims to kill al-Qaida’s gunmen in Iraq and established the basis for a democracy in an Arab country. The cost to the United States was more than 4,500 dead, 30,000 wounded and at least $500 billion.

Obama also cited President George W. Bush’s “surge” counter-offensive in 2007, without mentioning Bush or his own opposition to the successful operation.

Like in many other speeches, he played up the promise of federal spending for needy soldiers. “We will help our wounded warriors heal, and we will stand by those who’ve suffered the unseen wounds of war,” he declared. “We’ve worked with Congress to pass a tax credit so that companies have the incentive to hire vets.  And Michelle has worked with the private sector to get commitments to create 100,000 jobs for those who’ve served.”

“The Democratic Party has had a much easier time talking about supporting the military with more entitlement benefits” than recognizing its professional accomplishments, said Peter Feaver, a politics professor at Duke University.

The emphasis on entitlements “has been the Democratic Party’s way of exorcising the Vietnam War’s ghost, when they got tagged [by the public] with being anti-war and anti-military,” Feaver said. “They wanted to avoid that this time… the solution was to be anti-war but pro-military benefits.”

Neither soldiers nor the public regard the military merely as a welfare case. Throughout much of Obama’s speech, even during his novel and lavish praise for their military accomplishments, the soldiers’ reaction was muted.

But most of his speech consisted of unprecedented accolades for the soldiers.

“Those last American troops [not in Iraq] will move south on desert sands, and then they will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high… [and we remember] American troops breaking the back of a brutal dictator in less than a month,” he said.

“Your will proved stronger than the terror of those who tried to break it… you stood firm to help those Iraqis who put their faith in the future… Through all this, you have shown why the United States military is the finest fighting force in the history of the world.”

This praise won’t cost him support among his progressive base, mostly because it was given to soldiers as Obama completed his campaign-trail promise to withdraw from Iraq.

Republican politicians, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, say there’s some risk that the troop withdrawal could mean that Iraq’s government will lose the gains earned by U.S. soldiers. But the 2012 election will likely be decided by economic issues.

However, the soldiers and their families will likely remembers Obama’s scripted, teleprompter-carried torrent of compliments, which even channeled the St. Crispins’ Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V play.

“Years from now… in the quiet of night, you will recall that your heart was once touched by fire,” Obama said. “You answered when your country called; you served a cause greater than yourselves; you helped forge a just and lasting peace with Iraq, and among all nations.”

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