Obama Pays His Respects to VFW (& Vice-Versa)

President Barack Obama spoke before a decidedly not hand-picked audience of around 6,000 people in the heart of red-state Arizona today and no one shouted the epithets “Communist!” or “Liar!”

How refreshing.

Granted, this was the national convention of Veterans of Foreign wars, and booing your Commander-in-Chief is generally considered “conduct unbecoming,” even if you haven’t worn the uniform for a few decades.

Still, I think New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg goes a bit far in her frosty characterization of today’s event.

As a commander-in-chief who has never served in the Armed Forces, Mr. Obama is still working to establish his bona fides with the military. His predecessor, George W. Bush, typically received wildly enthusiastic receptions from military audiences; Mr. Obama received a more tepid welcome here, with his speech interrupted only occasionally by polite applause.

First of all, at informal military gatherings Obama has been greeted enthusiastically. But this is the VFW convention and that’s a different venue. I took a quick look at the video of W.’s appearance here last year.

President Bush, VFW, 2008President Bush, VFW, 2008In the first ten minutes, Bush drew applause a dozen times. By comparison, Obama was applauded eleven times in his opening ten minutes today. From the press section in the middle of the large room, I heard a loud “Hooah!” of approval two or three times.

Stolberg’s characterization is, for the most part, accurate. But I have one more quibble. She characterizes the audience response as “polite.” It was more than that; it was “respectful.” If that seems like a distinction without a difference to you, you didn’t spend a few minutes outside the Phoenix Convention Center before the President’s appearance this morning. The vitriol that pours from cable news was on display on the hot streets of Phoenix. The only thing worse than a misinformed angry mob is a sweaty misinformed angry mob. The heat itself makes tempers flare and these folks came prepped to flare.

My take on Obama’s reception is that it says something good both about the VFW and about the President. They showed mutual respect. The servicemen and women could have sat on their hands, but they didn’t. Obama could have phoned this one in, but he didn’t.

Still, while Obama said forcefully that “after serving their country, no veteran should be sleeping on the streets,” there are still 131,000 homeless veterans according to the military’s own estimates.

The President promised to bring an end to the hated “stop-loss” policy that forces soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to return to combat duty even after their enlistment period is over. Obama has already taken some action on this commitment — setting a timeline for phasing out stop-loss, and phasing in a larger fighting force.

Whether or not he’s able to keep to those timelines, however, depends on what happens in Afghanistan, a campaign which, the president acknowledged again today, “will not be quick…” and “…will not be easy.”

He added:

This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people.

In other words, just because we’re pulling our men and women out of Iraq, don’t plan on the military coming home from that region anytime soon. We are pulling out of Iraq, but we may simultaneously deploy more troops to Afghanistan.

How long will the American people support continuing the war, whether the battlefield is in Iraq or Afghanistan? From his remarks at today’s VFW convention, President Obama clearly hopes Americans agree that Afghanistan is a war of necessity and are prepared to fight it for some time.




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