WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama ended one war and is winding down another, bringing home tens of thousands of U.S. troops. Now he wants them to pay him back — with votes.
"You stood up for America. America needs to stand up for you," Obama told service members returning to Fort Bragg, N.C. from Iraq recently.
Expect to hear that pitch throughout the next year as the president's campaign, mindful that large numbers of veterans and military families live in states crucial to his re-election chances, highlights his efforts to promote jobs and benefits for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Republicans, meanwhile, already are countering his record, noting high unemployment among veterans.
The outreach to veterans is part of a larger effort by Obama to build inroads with voting blocs traditionally outside the Democratic umbrella while it tries to reactivate the coalition of women, minorities and young voters who helped propel him to the White House in 2008. Obama's campaign is free to focus on building a diverse base of support for the general election because he faces no primary opponent. His eventual GOP challenger doesn't have that luxury.
While Democrats have traditionally trailed Republicans on defense and national security matters, Obama senses an opening with veterans because he has generally received high marks from voters for his handling of terrorism — especially after the U.S. raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden — and in managing the U.S.'s relationships with other countries. A recent AP-GfK poll found that 59 percent of adults felt Obama would keep America safe, a mark that has remained steady throughout 2011.
Exit polls in 2008 showed that Obama received about 44 percent of voters who said they served in the military, while 54 percent voted for Republican John McCain, a former Navy pilot who was a prisoner of war for more than five years during the Vietnam War. Four years earlier, George W. Bush, who sought re-election as the U.S. waged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, won 57 percent of voters who said they served in the military, compared with 41 percent for Democrat John Kerry.
There are obvious political reasons for Obama's effort.
Several states that will be heavily contested next year have a significant military presence. Florida, home to a number of military installations, has more than 1.6 million veterans, according to the Veterans Administration. Virginia and North Carolina, political battlegrounds that Obama carried in 2008, both have about 800,000 veterans while Colorado, another important state in the Obama re-election calculation, has more than 400,000 veterans.
This year, the playing field in the fight to woo veterans may end up being level if anyone other than Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Rep. Ron Paul — the only two with military experience in the GOP field — win the nomination. Obama had no military experience before becoming commander in chief. (The last time both parties didn't have a presidential candidate with military experience was 1944, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Thomas E. Dewey.)
As the nation winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have held numerous events at military bases and in communities heavily populated by veterans. During a bus tour through North Carolina and Virginia in October, the president and first lady stopped at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in the heart of a large military community in Hampton and Newport News, Va. Since entering the White House, the first lady has held about 50 events with military families in 14 states.
Obama also has talked up his work on a new GI Bill helping veterans and service members to attend college and on tax incentives for companies that hire veterans, a piece of his jobs bill that won passage in Congress during the fall. The Democratic National Committee featured the incentives in ads that aired in North Carolina, New Mexico and Ohio.
Bob Wallace, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said Obama has been "very positive" for veterans. He said members of his organization are looking for specific ways the next White House administration — Democrat or Republican — intends to help veterans.
"The cost of war continues after the last shot is fired and after you pull the trucks over the border into Kuwait," Wallace said. "You've got a lot of expenses to take care of these guys and gals and that's the commitment we're looking for anybody who wants to be president of the United States."
Republicans challenge Obama's record on veterans' issues by pointing to high jobless rates among those returning from military service — more than 11 percent for veterans who have served since the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks are unemployed. Republican presidential candidates also have raised concerns about defense spending and the move by Obama to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Scott Rutter, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from New City, N.Y., who serves as a veterans policy adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign, said many veterans are concerned about their job prospects after leaving the military along with a disability claims backlog that can leave a veteran waiting months or even years to get a claim processed.
"We need leadership. You've got to put a little do-ah in the hooah," Rutter said. "You can talk about it but you have to have results."
Surrounding Obama's trip to Fort Bragg, Romney wrote in an op-ed in The Fayetteville Observer that "words of welcome to our returning soldiers are not enough," calling it "a disgrace that those who are now returning from Iraq join other Iraq veterans suffering from unemployment above 11 percent." And in an October speech at The Citadel, South Carolina's military college, Romney vowed to increase defense spending and increase the number of Navy ships.
Perry, running behind in early voting states, has increasingly drawn attention to his military credentials, running ads featuring decorated veterans touting his leadership abilities. He has criticized Obama for troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, has opposed defense cuts except for waste.
Paul, who served as an Air Force physician during the Vietnam era, has opposed efforts to require military retirees to pay more for health care coverage. Both parties have discussed cost-cutting changes to the military's health care program to help deal with large deficits.