Obama campaign tries to win military voters away from Republicans

When President Obama delivered his State of the Union address on Tuesday, he started and ended the speech with what has been a hallmark of his presidency: his role as commander in chief.

The speech’s book ends served as a reminder that he was the one who oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden—something that had eluded his predecessor — and other successful al Qaeda lieutenants and a successful mission in Libya while guiding the end of the Iraq war, one of his campaign promises.

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Obama’s policy efforts have dovetailed with a military families initiative led by first lady Michelle Obama and second lady Jill Biden, which has called attention to the issues involving education, wellness and employment of service members and their loved ones.

By highlighting the president’s foreign policy victories front and center, the Obama campaign is making no secret that it sees a possibility to win over military voters—long thought to be a GOP stronghold—an important constituency in key battleground states such as Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina.

Obama’s wins — from the bin Laden killing to this week's news that U.S. special forces freed an American hostage from Somali pirates — will only help the president with the military community and beyond, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell told Democrats at their annual issues conference on Thursday. 

"He's taken the security issue totally away from the Republicans," Rendell said. 

As a result, Obama may be capturing some of that vote, observers say.

“The military is feeling a lot better about Obama today than they were when he took office,” said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute. “He has kept spending at much higher levels than anybody expected and he has generally supported the force as it surged in Afghanistan and carried out some dangerous special ops missions.”

In particular, Thompson said military officials have backed the risks the president has taken with the special operations missions, like the one which sealed bin Laden’s fate.

“They recognize he risked his political future by taking a chance on their ability to perform,” Thompson added. 

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in national security and defense policy, agrees with that sentiment.


“I think he has made some inroads,” O’Hanlon said. “He handled the Iraq drawdown more carefully than promised and showed a fair amount of toughness towards Afghanistan as well as al Qaeda, and to date at least defense cuts have been handled carefully.”

At the same time, Retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew, a Pentagon consultant and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said he was initially critical of the president’s foreign policy because he “overestimated his ability to persuade.”

Killebrew said he’s been won over this past year, in particular by the way Obama has handled Iran and Libya.

“He’s actually racking up a pretty impressive list of achievements,” he said.

Republicans have criticized Obama on several foreign policy issues, including the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Their loudest criticism —and best chance to knock Obama on national security — has been over the budget cuts to the Pentagon.

Obama announced a new military strategy this month as the Pentagon plans to cut $487 billion over the next 10 years. Another $500 billion cut could be tacked on if the automatic cuts through sequestration are not changed, something most don’t expect to occur until after the election.

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has blamed the president for allowing the sequestration cuts to be in play, warning in a November debate the administration was “cutting the capacity of America to defend itself.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), the war veteran who opposed Obama in the 2008 presidential race and won the veterans' vote, said the budget cuts announced Thursday “would repeat the mistakes of history and leave our forces too small to respond effectively to events that may unfold over the next few years.”

Such arguments could hurt Obama in the fall.

But so far, Team Obama is feeling pretty confident over their handling of the new strategy.  In an unprecedented move, Obama traveled to the Pentagon earlier this month to explain the budget cuts in person.

“Yes, our military will be leaner, but the world must know—the United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats,” Obama said at the time, flanked by the nation’s top military officials, a visual that sent a strong message about the unity of the move.

And the campaign—with its Veterans and Military Families unit—has spent time building support. As of this week, Veterans for Obama claimed more than 16,000 supporters on its Facebook page.

“I certainly think that people give him very high marks for his role as commander in chief,” said one Obama campaign aide, adding that his record "resonates with the veteran and military families community." 

“I don’t think the Republicans will have any ability to hold a candle to his efforts,” the aide said.

While the aide acknowledged that Obama’s efforts to improve the economy is key,  “his success as commander in chief is what a lot of people will pay attention to.”

But will it be enough? Don Peebles, who serves on Obama’s finance committee, said he thinks it will help “to a degree.”

“But America has a short term memory,” he said. “I’m just not sure how much of an impact it will have. The challenge of the president’s campaign will be to educate and remind voters where we were. If they focus on that issue, then I think the president sways people.”

On Tuesday, during his State of the Union address, Obama used the example of the military as an ideal for Washington policymakers to live up to and commended their “courage, selflessness and team work.”

“At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations,” he said.

And he returned to the same sentiment as he closed the address using the bin Laden mission specifically to show that politics didn’t matter. Actions did.

While on the mission “some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn’t matter,” Obama said.

“Just like it didn’t matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates—a man who was George Bush’s defense secretary; and Hillary Clinton, a woman who ran against me for president. All that mattered that day was the mission,” he added. “No one thought about politics.”