President Obama put his personal imprint on the future of the U.S. military Thursday, placing the president at the center of the Pentagon's budget cuts as he heads into his reelection campaign.
Making the first-ever presidential trip to the Pentagon briefing room, Obama said the military will get leaner as the Pentagon cuts its budgets by $450 billion over the next decade, but he emphasized America will not cede its military superiority.
The new military strategy calls for ending the ability to fight two wars at once and reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, two strategies that Republicans are likely to jump on as evidence of the military’s decline.
National security has been considered a strength for Obama three years into his presidency, as he’s overseen the killing of Osama bin Laden and ended the war in Iraq. But the reductions also will leave the president open to attacks that he’s weak on defense, a line often used against Democrats in presidential elections.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called Obama's involvement in the months-long effort "truly unprecedented," saying presidents rarely get so deeply involved in shaping such strategies.
The Pentagon budget cuts — as well as the potential for another $500 billion because of the supercommittee’s failure — will place national security back in the election spotlight in a campaign that’s been dominated by the economy so far.
A reduction in Pentagon spending stands in stark contrast with nearly all of the Republicans running for president, who are calling for an increase in the size of the military.
GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney has blasted the president’s Pentagon plans. The former Massachusetts governor has said he’d boost the number of troops and increase shipbuilding.
“They’re cutting programs, cutting the capacity of America to defend itself,” Romney said at a November presidential debate.
Obama sought to counter arguments Thursday that reducing the size of the military would reduce its strength.
He said with the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military doesn’t need the same number of conventional ground forces that it had over the past decade.
Quoting President Eisenhower, Obama talked about the need to “restore balance” among national programs after the military grew “at an extraordinary pace” following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Obama pointed out that the defense budget would still be larger than it was at the end of the Bush administration.
“I firmly believe, and I think the American people understand, that we can keep our military strong — and our nation secure — with a defense budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined,” Obama said.
Ending the Iraq war was a campaign promise Obama made in 2008. His campaign emphasized the accomplishment as the last troops left in December, a theme likely to continue in the general election.
Republicans have been critical of the withdrawal, accusing Obama of placing political calculation ahead of military strategy.
Polls show ending the Iraq war has been a popular decision, though the president risks backlash if the tenuous political situation in a post-U.S. Iraq continues to spiral downward.
What may be a bigger issue is the size of the Pentagon’s budgets. The new military strategy Obama announced Thursday addresses plans to reduce Pentagon budgets by $450 billion over the next decade, but it does not consider the potential for additional automatic cuts of $500 billion due to take effect in January 2013.
Republicans — as well as Panetta — have said the additional cuts are unacceptable and would be devastating to the military. Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail blasted Obama over the additional defense cuts, attempting to pin the blame on the president.
Obama has threatened to veto any attempts to back out of the automatic trigger, calling on Congress to find the $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction that would stop the cuts.
Panetta said Thursday the additional cuts would result in a “hollow force,” and the Obama administration does not intend to allow them to occur.
While both Democrats and Republicans ultimately expect the automatic cuts to be altered before they go into effect, most don’t expect traction until after the 2012 election, keeping them in play as a campaign issue.
- John T. Bennett contributed.