April 21, 2009 – A crisp salute, a first lady’s campaign, a generous budget and some familiar appointments have allowed President Obama to take great strides toward reassuring the group that was perhaps the most wary of his election — the military.
While past and present military leaders aren’t about to change their largely Republican leanings, they are willing to credit the president with some shrewd moves that allowed him to avoid the mistakes that made for such a hostile relationship between the military and the last non-veteran president — and Democrat — Bill Clinton.
Even though many former Clintonites are back in power with Obama, “they’re not dumb enough to make the same mistakes,” said retired Army Lt. Col. James J. Carafano, now a defense expert at the Heritage Foundation. “I think they are much more attuned to the challenges of civil-military relationships than Clinton was when he came in.”
One of the smart things he said Obama did to reassure the military was to appoint respected retired military people to key posts — Army Gen. Eric Shinseki as head of the Veterans Affairs Department, Marine Gen. James Jones as national security adviser, and Adm. Dennis Blair as director of national intelligence. The president retained the service chiefs, which is normal, and two of the three service secretaries, which is not normal since they are political appointees. He also retained Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Nothing showed the contrast between the early approaches of Obama and Clinton more than one moment during Obama’s April 7 visit with troops in Iraq. “We love you,” shouted a soldier as other troops cheered and the flashes of dozens of cameras went off. “I love you back,” said the president. The soldiers at that base could not restrain their enthusiasm, stretching their hands to touch their new commander-in-chief.
At about the same time in his presidency, Clinton visited sailors aboard the carrier Theodore Roosevelt in 1993. There were no outstretched hands then, just a quiet, almost sullen reception and lots of complaints to reporters about a president who didn’t understand the military.
Another early sign of good things for Obama was something far less substantive but symbolically important — his salute.
The first 39 presidents did not salute, even though 25 of them were veterans and 12 had been generals. But once Ronald Reagan started returning salutes from military honor guards, every president since has had his salute put under the microscope. From the moment of Obama’s first salute, outside a gym at a Marine air base in Hawaii in December, his style has been praised.
Inside the Pentagon and inside the powerful veterans’ organizations, though, they were looking for more than symbolism. They wanted signs that the new president respected them and was willing to back that respect with money in his first budget.
One early positive signal came when Michelle Obama made clear that the plight of military families would be her prime cause as first lady. Since the inauguration, she has often talked about that cause and has traveled to Fort Bragg and to Arlington National Cemetery to meet with families.
The president also signaled his interest with his schedule — talking to his Iraq commanders, meeting with retired officers, going to the Pentagon and meeting with senior enlisted officials all in his first 10 days in office. He also traveled to Camp Lejeune to meet with troops and gave a major speech at the National Defense University.
Obama’s only major military stumble came from a budget proposal that enraged large and powerful veterans’ groups. The administration hoped to save $540 million by having treatment for service-connected injuries charged to the private insurance plans of veterans. The anger escalated when Obama clung to the proposal after leaders of all the major veterans’ groups came to the White House to complain in a March 16 meeting with the president, Shinseki, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Steven Kosiak, the director in charge of defense spending at the Office of Management and Budget.
“All parties went into that meeting very hopeful that the decision would be reversed then and there,” said Craig Roberts, media relations manager for the 2.6-million-member American Legion. “When it was not, there was disillusionment, disappointment, even anger.”
Less than 48 hours — and 53 radio interviews by Roberts — later, the White House dropped the proposal. “There were some hurt feelings on both sides,” he said. But he noted that veterans’ groups are “generally encouraged” by what they have seen from Obama, singling out “the surge in Afghanistan, the sensitivity to military families that the first lady has shown … and the overall VA budget proposal from the president, which exceeds even our own expectations.” That budget, boasted White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, calls for the largest VA increase in 30 years.
Roberts said he believes the ex-Clintonites around Obama have been crucial. “I think he’s being schooled by them,” he said. “He is showing a better understanding of the military’s role in our society and the necessity for a strong and healthy military. We may not agree with all of his policies regarding it, but he seems to be showing a greater sensitivity to the need for a military and how to treat military families.”
One lesson from the Clinton veterans was not to fall into the trap that ensnared Clinton when he tackled the question of gays in the military right out of the box in 1993. In contrast, said Carafano, Obama “sent out pretty clear signals that that is not an issue that is going to be addressed right now, that that is something for down the road.”
P.J. Crowley has seen both sides of the divide. As an Air Force colonel, he was an insider at the Pentagon and the White House in the Clinton years, serving 11 years as a spokesman at the Pentagon and three years as a spokesman for the National Security Council. Currently, he is close to the Obama team from his perch as a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress and is said to be in line for a top job at the State Department.
He contends that Clinton had a “very strong relationship” with the military by the time he left office. But he acknowledged “it took awhile,” adding, “Clearly, anyone who comes after him benefits from that experience.”
While praising Obama for “quite effectively managing his early relationship with the military and the veterans’ community,” Crowley said more than politics is involved. “The relationship between the military and the commander-in-chief is fundamental to our democracy. It is an important relationship. At some point in a campaign, any candidate has to pass the commander-in-chief test” or he will not win the campaign. But then, in office, inevitably comes “a trial” when a president must flex American military muscle. That trial has not yet come for Obama.
Otto Kreisher contributed to this report.