WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney brought their commander-in-chief stump speeches to the nation’s largest combat veterans convention this week, but presented starkly different views on what that job entails.
On Tuesday, Romney treated his appearance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars event in Reno, Nev., as a foreign policy address, talking as much about Iran, Russia and Israel as about Afghanistan. He painted Obama as a weak leader who plays politics with the military, accusing him of leaking classified information for political gain and sacrificing military readiness to bolster less important spending programs.
“When it comes to national security and foreign policy, as with our economy, the last few years have been a time of declining influence and missed opportunities,” the former Massachusetts governor said. “We haven’t seen much in the president’s first term that inspires much confidence in the second.”
A day earlier, Obama focused most of his comments on the post-war military, speaking about promises he has kept to boost spending on veterans benefits programs and to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He pushed back against claims that proposed budget cuts will gut the military, and he urged Congress to find solutions to avoid automatic, across-the-board cuts to military accounts. He insisted that the military and the country are stronger today because of policies enacted under his administration.
“Thanks to the extraordinary service of our men and women in uniform, we’re winding down a decade of war, we’re destroying the terrorist network that attacked us,” he said. “Today, every American can be proud that the United States is safer and stronger and more respected in the world.”
Neither Obama nor Romney served in the military, making this election the first in almost 70 years in which neither of the two major-party candidates was a veteran. The winner will inherit the waning days of the Afghanistan War and existing plans for a major relocation of troops and a shift in their mission worldwide.
On Afghanistan, both men support similar plans, although neither publicly acknowledges it. Obama has set a timeline of 2014 to transition all combat operations to Afghan forces, with a steady drawdown of U.S. troops until then. Romney insists the timelines are risky and ignore the advice of military commanders, but has also backed a 2014 handover.
Romney’s speech focused more on other foreign hot spots. He promised a more coherent Iran policy, calling the country “the most severe security threat facing America.” He vowed no concessions until Iran stops the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Before the crowd of roughly 5,000 veterans, he portrayed America’s standing abroad as weak and indecisive, especially in key regions like the Middle East. Obama said global opinion of America has never been stronger, and pointed to NATO’s involvement in the Libyan revolution and key partnerships around the globe.
The men also sparred over billions in looming military funding cuts, some proposed by the Obama administration, others approved by Congress last summer. Romney lumped the two together, saying that cutting national security at a time of global turmoil is foolish.
“This is not the time for the president’s radical cuts in the military,” he said. “Other major powers are rapidly adding to their military capabilities, some with intentions very different from ours. ... We are still at war and still have uniformed men and women in conflict.”
Obama said his new defense strategy — which, in part, draws down military end strength as the war in Afghanistan ends — avoids a bloated, fiscally unsustainable military.
He blamed the automatic defense cuts on lawmakers who approved the plan and who now are scrambling to avoid funding reductions that the military opposes fiercely.
“Instead of making tough choices to reduce the deficit, [Republicans] would rather protect tax cuts for some of the wealthiest Americans, even if it risks big cuts in our military,” he said. “If the choice is between tax cuts that the wealthiest Americans don’t need and funding our troops … I will stand with our troops every single time.”
Romney left the VFW event Tuesday for travel to Israel, England and Poland. Campaign spokesmen said the goal of the speech was to show his heft in international affairs and national security, areas that have not been emphasized so far in a campaign mostly focused on economic issues.
Obama spokesmen said Romney’s decision to skimp on veterans issues in his speech — in contrast to the president — shows his lack of focus on matters affecting the troops serving overseas.
Current polls show veterans preferring Romney to Obama by almost a 2-to-1 margin. But Sen. John McCain, Obama’s 2008 presidential rival, also enjoyed a similar dominance in the veteran vote that year.