What Obama's re-election means for the military, veterans

President Barack Obama addresses service members and their family members during a visit to Fort Bliss in August.

WASHINGTON – Even though Barack Obama has served as commander in chief for the last four years, his re-election Tuesday will mean significant changes for the military in coming months, especially in terms of defense spending.

Where his challenger in the presidential campaign promised big increases in military budgets in coming years, Obama has planned almost $500 billion in spending reductions for the military over the next decade, calling it a responsible post-war plan. Republicans in Congress fiercely oppose the effort, but the president’s re-election blunts their hopes of increasing or even holding steady defense spending.

Those cuts would come on top of the $500 billion in automatic defense spending reductions slated to start in January. The president in recent weeks has stepped up his pressure on Congress to find an alternative plan, declaring in the final presidential debate that the cuts “will not happen.”


But lawmakers haven’t been able to approach a compromise on the issue. Obama has said he won’t let the military be decimated by sequestration, but also won’t sacrifice other domestic programs to save the services.

Here’s a look other military challenges for Obama’s second term:

• End strength cuts.

Obama has pledged to trim back the military’s end strength -- the Army by about 70,000, and the Marine Corps by about 18,000, over the next five years -- and reign in the number of senior civilian and military personnel at the Pentagon. The services should start feeling that pinch in 2013.

Advisers have said his proposed 2014 budget, due in February, will reflect the strategy he outlined in January of a leaner, quick-response fighting force, one with a smaller footprint in Europe and a larger presence in the Pacific.

In a statement to Stars and Stripes before the election, Obama said the more modern defense posture will be more flexible and more sustainable, “helping allies and partners build their capacity, with more training and exercises.” But it will also be done with fewer personnel, a claim his critics on the right have called impossible to execute.

• The Defense of Marriage Act.

The fight over federal recognition of same-sex marriages isn’t directly tied to the Defense Department, but it could have dramatic effects on who receives military benefits.

Obama has publicly stated his opposition to DOMA, which prohibits the government from giving same-sex married couples access to federal benefits. Gay rights advocates have made the issue their key battleground, especially since the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law has been overturned.

If DOMA is repealed (or overturned by the courts), gay military couples could have access to health care, housing and commissary benefits that are only open to heterosexual couples. Veterans benefits and health care would also be open to those individuals.

• Promises to veterans.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki promised to end veterans homelessness by late 2015, eliminate the veterans benefits backlog by late 2015, and establish a joint VA-DOD lifelong medical records system by 2017. All of those ambitious deadlines will come during Obama’s second term.

The  VA promises come amid a wave of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans leaving the military for civilian life. The unemployment rate among the youngest generation of war fighters has remained stubbornly high for the last four years, usually exceeding the national jobless rate.

Lawmakers in recent months have criticized the department for not having enough mental health specialists on hand, prompting promises of new hiring and better outreach to veterans.

Veterans groups have lauded the lofty goals, but privately have been skeptical about whether the VA can follow through and succeed.

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