Bill Whalen

Obama and the VFW Convention—A Foreign Concept?

Let’s put ourselves inside President Obama’s head for a moment.

The good news: August is almost over, and with it maybe an end to the American electorate’s summer of discontent (Obama’s Gallup approval rating now an anemic 38%; his disapproval a harrowing 55%). Granted, if you’re Mr. Obama, you’re not happy that your vacation was cut short a few hours. Then again, Hurricane Irene turned out to be, shall we say, somewhat overblown. And you returned to a nation’s capital that hadn’t been swallowed by the earth, no matter how silly the media coverage. Still, you have 14 months to rediscover the mojo of ’08 and snag another four years.

Now, the bad news: you just can’t escape controversy, even if the calendar’s about to flip a month.

This week’s flap: the Veteran of Foreign Wars national convention in San Antonio. Specifically: Obama’s decision not to attend, the first time in the convention’s 112-year history that the White House – that’s the President or a Administration surrogate as a consolation prize – won’t be a participant.

Why the presidential snub? Timing’s a possibility: the VFW’s convention kicks off on Monday; Obama’s scheduled to speak Tuesday, in Minneapolis, at the American Legion’s national convention, which kicked off last Friday.

Or maybe it’s luck of the draw. Perhaps someone in the West Wing flipped a coin – and it just happened to land on the side of the veterans’ organization with the larger membership (2.4 million for the America Legion vs. 2 million for the VFW).

Or maybe – just maybe – the White House made an entirely different calculation. It looked at: (a) the President’s two likely opponents in November 2012 (Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Rick Perry – neither, a foreign policy maven); (b) the presidential record (better than it was a year ago, with bin Laden toast and Gaddafi seemingly kaput); and (c) the prevailing political winds (joblessness, a possible double-dip recession).

And maybe – just maybe – the President’s political team concluded that two veterans’ speeches in two days was overkill . . . even for a President who seldom misses a chance to bask in the glow of his TelePrompTer.

If so, it’s a remarkable change from three years ago, when then-candidate Obama grappled with Iraq in front of the VFW convention’s audience, and went out of his way to demonstrate that he was just as America-loving and military-respectful as his Republican opponent, Arizona Sen. and Vietnam POW John McCain (here’s the full text of then-Sen. Obama’s remarks).

The key passage:

I will let no one question my love of this country. I love America, so do you, and so does John McCain. When I look out at this audience, I see people of different political views. You are Democrats and Republicans and independents. But you all served together, and fought together, and bled together under the same proud flag. You did not serve a red America or a blue America – you served the United States of America.

First, let’s assume that, a year from now, Obama doesn’t carry the same burden as he did in seeking the White House the last time around. He’s not a first-term senator with, some would argue, a naïve worldview (a charge leveled by Joe Biden, of all people, back in 2008). Instead, he’s a first-term president with a record to defend – and sometimes boast, other times deflect.

Second, let’s also assume that Perry or Romney or whomever the GOP nominee assails the presidential record at next August’s VFW convention (rest assured the President won’t miss that one). If the dynamics then are as they are now, it will be a departure from a campaign that otherwise will be relentlessly domestic in its daily dialogue.

Third, and this is a big if: let’s assume there’s not a major and grave foreign-policy event in the next 14 months – further unrest in the Middle East; war erupting on the Korean peninsula; some terrorist event – that precludes the economy from dominating the race.

Regardless, it will be interesting to see if, a year from now, the VFW audience forgives Obama for this apparent snub.

In the meantime, what will Perry or Romney have to say about the Obama record (aside from the obvious: a Republican president wouldn’t lead from behind)?

We’ll know beginning Monday, when Perry takes the stage in San Antonio. For the Texas governor, the big question going in: how “Bushian” his foreign outlook will resonate?

On Tuesday, it’s Romney’s turn to address the VFW. Already, he’s criticized Obama for not being tough enough on Iran, has gone after Biden for his recent China one-child gaffe, and surprised some by suggesting the U.S. should hasten its withdrawal from Afghanistan (South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, btw: not a fan)

But on one matter, bet on the rival Republicans to find this common ground: criticizing Barack Obama not because he didn’t serve (and therefore isn’t a veteran of a foreign war), but because he’s the first president in any veteran’s lifetime to be deliberately missing in action from the annual gathering.

Not exactly something to salute.

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