In the summer of 2006, then-President George W. Bush used a speech to the American Legion to offer a lengthy and muscular defense of the Iraq War, which Bush described as the central front of “ideological struggle of the 21st century.” If the U.S. stopped fighting militants in the streets of Iraq, Bush said, “we will face the terrorists in the streets of our own cities.”
In his own address to the American Legion on Tuesday morning, President Obama chose a sharply different tack. He mentioned Afghanistan twice and Iraq just three times, once to reiterate that the U.S. planned to “remove the rest of our troops by the end of this year and end that war.”
Instead, Obama focused his remarks almost exclusively on job creation and other domestic issues, underscoring the president’s growing push to persuade the American public that he is working hard to fix the ailing economy. Polls show that the nation’s persistently high unemployment and anemic economic growth are Obama’s biggest political vulnerability, and the president is planning to deliver a major jobs-related speech next month to outline an array of proposals to spur new private-sector hiring.
Obama summed up his message to the veterans with a variation of a signature line that he has been using more and more frequently in recent weeks. “After a decade of war, it’s time to focus on nation-building here at home,” he said.
Obama outlined an array of new measures designed to help returning veterans—whose unemployment rate is significantly higher than the national average—find jobs. He said the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs Department would create a “reverse boot camp” designed to help veterans transition into the civilian workforce. Obama also proposed new “Returning-Heroes Tax Credits” for companies that hire veterans and “Wounded-Warrior Tax Credits” for firms hiring disabled former troops. The president said Congress should place the measures “at the top of the agenda” when lawmakers come back from recess.
“For the sake of our veterans, for the sake of our economy, we need these veterans working and contributing and creating the new jobs and industries that will keep America competitive in the 21st century,” Obama said on Tuesday.
Veterans-related legislation has drawn strong bipartisan support since the start of the Iraq and Afghan wars, even for financially costly measures. When Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb proposed a new GI Bill designed to give veterans a monthly stipend in addition to generous tuition benefits, the Senate approved it 75-22 despite a veto threat from then-President Bush. Bush ultimately dropped his opposition and signed it into law.
But that support is beginning to fray as Republicans, particularly those elected with tea party backing, start looking for places to cut spending. The “Path to Prosperity” released earlier this year by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin proposes setting the VA’s fiscal 2012 budget at $128 billion, down roughly $4 billion from the Obama administration’s proposal. Other Republican lawmakers have proposed other cuts, such as asking some military retirees to pay higher premiums for their government-provided health care.
The upshot is that Obama’s proposals for ambitious new veteran job-creation efforts may not go anywhere on Capitol Hill. Politically, however, that may not matter much to the White House. The administration knows that Obama’s reelection chances depend almost entirely on improving the economy, or at least convincing a majority of the American public that he is doing everything he can in the face of Republican intransigence. Bush embraced being a wartime president. Obama is trying to shed the label as quickly as he can.