COLORADO SPRINGS — President Obama made the case for his proposed defense cuts Wednesday in his commencement speech at the Air Force Academy, calling for a leaner but better-prepared military ready to deal with a range of threats.
“We must be vigilant,” said Mr. Obama. “So, guided by our new defense strategy, we’ll keep our military — and our Air Force — fast, flexible and versatile. We will maintain our superiority in all areas — air, land, sea, space and cyber.”
Speaking to a packed house of 1,100 graduates and their families, he drew cheers for several references to the killing of terrorist Osama bin Laden, a foreign-policy victory occurring on his watch that has become a key piece of his re-election message.
“For the first time in your lives — and thanks to Air Force personnel who did their part — Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat to our country. We’ve put al Qaeda on the path to defeat,” said Mr. Obama. “And you are the first graduates since 9/11 who can see clearly how we’ll end the war in Afghanistan.”
Mr. Obama has been criticized for his skeptical view of American exceptionalism, but in his address, he predicted the advent of another “American Century” marked by economic prosperity, a strong international alliance, advances in human rights, and a focus on “nation-building here at home.”
This is the president’s second trip in less than a month to Colorado, a swing state that backed him in 2008 and that his campaign considers key to his re-election chances. He spoke to another group of students at the University of Colorado Boulder in April.
At least three television ads either favoring Mr. Obama or criticizing his likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, are now airing on Denver television stations. Mr. Romney spent a day in Colorado making campaign appearances two weeks ago.
The focus of the president’s commencement speech was foreign policy and military readiness, neither of which were seen as strengths for Mr. Obama when he ran in 2008. Since then, however, polls show public support for his handling of international affairs, thanks in part to the death of bin Laden and the decision to pull troops out of Iraq.
“He has a very good foreign policy rating, much better than his domestic policy rating,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “For all the criticism of his being too international and not a believer in American exceptionalism, he got Osama, he backed the Afghan surge, and he engineered these withdrawals.”
The administration’s proposed deep cuts in defense spending have yet to register with the electorate at large, said Mr. Ciruli.
“If that’s playing locally, I’m not hearing it,” said Mr. Ciruli. “The military is not playing — the economy is playing.”
On stage with Mr. Obama at Falcon Stadium were several prominent Colorado Democrats: Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Jared Polis, and state Rep. Pete Lee, as well as Republican Rep. Cory Gardner. Absent was Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Republican whose district includes the Air Force Academy.
Lamborn spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said the congressman, regarded as one of the most conservative members of the House, was invited to attend the event, but declined because he had already agreed to be the graduation speaker Wednesday at Wasson High School in Colorado Springs.
Mr. Lamborn weighed in with a statement criticizing the president for the sluggish economy. “Mr. President, we need more jobs, not more speeches. Your failed economic policies have created an economy where half of our graduating college seniors will either be unemployed or underemployed,” he said.
Mr. Obama is the first president to speak at an Air Force Academy commencement since President George W. Bush in 2008.