As he winds down one war and escalates another, President Obama is struggling to win over the troops he’s leading as commander in chief — and military advocates say the real test will come as the nation approaches final timelines for withdrawal in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama has earned strong reviews from veterans groups, which praise his willingness to listen and his aggressive funding of the Veterans Affairs Department.
His progress among members of the military, however, has been slower. A Military Times poll this year of its subscribers — which include active-duty, reserves and guard troops, and some retirees and family members — found that a majority disapproved of his leadership as their commander.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama will meet with some of those troops when he travels to the Army’s Fort Bliss in Texas, hours before he delivers a prime-time speech from the Oval Office to mark the departure of U.S. combat troops from Iraq - the conflict that defined the presidency of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Mr. Obama has largely escaped the criticisms of President Bush about underfunding troops and acting outside the chain of command, but detractors say he should approach timetables in both wars with more flexibility to account for conditions on the ground.
“Everyone will respect him as commander in chief and everyone will follow his orders,” said Pete Hegseth, an Iraq war veteran who now heads Vets for Freedom, a group that supports the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “But at the same time, there is a lot of concern about whether or not he’s truly committed to the fight that we’re invested in and whether or not he will truly see through what we need to do to succeed.”
Mr. Hegseth commended Mr. Obama for not doing “anything rash or too quickly” in Iraq, but said the Obama administration shouldn’t be taking credit for drawing down combat operations under an agreement that Bush officials made with the Iraqi government.
“It’s frustrating to see both the president and vice president jumping up and down saying, ‘Look what we did, look what we did,’ when if we actually followed the policies they were calling for … we would have left early and we would have left in shame,” Mr. Hegseth said, noting their opposition to the surge of forces in Iraq.
Mr. Hegseth said he has spoken with troops who are particularly annoyed by the administration’s move to de-emphasize the radical Islamic dimension of the terrorist threat in favor of the term “extremist,” and he described the July 2011 timeline for withdrawal in Afghanistan as an “albatross around the neck of our soldiers.”
However, he said, Mr. Obama has made “a lot of really good decisions” about personnel and stepping up drone attacks.
His retention of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a Republican appointed by Mr. Bush, was a “brilliant move,” said retired Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, a 30-year Army veteran who led coalition training of Iraqi security forces in 2003 and 2004. Together with Adm. Mike Mullen, whom Mr. Obama kept as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president established a respected, workable chain of command, Mr. Eaton said.
“He established that he was a president who was going to work with advisers and work through the chain of command and not go directly to the field commander,” something Mr. Bush was accused of doing, said Mr. Eaton, now a senior adviser to the National Security Network.
Mr. Obama’s challenge on Tuesday, both at Fort Bliss and in his Oval Office address, will be to take credit for helping wind down a war in Iraq that he opposed, even as he thanks troops who believe in the mission and consider it a success.
“Regardless of whether you were opposed to or for going in back in 2003, that does not change his role as commander in chief in talking to and in, I think, lifting up the amazing contributions of those in our military that continue to serve our country so well, obviously at Walter Reed talking to those who have, as a result of that sacrifice, been harmed,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Monday.
An ABC-Washington Post poll taken in July found that the public overall gives Mr. Obama good marks for his job as commander in chief, with 55 percent saying they approve of his performance. It was the best of any of the handful of categories the poll tested.
But among troops, data show, he’s still struggling to win them over.
A Military Times poll conducted early this year found that 31 percent of subscribers to the publication approved of his job as commander in chief, while 53 percent disapproved. Those findings were similar to Military Times poll taken in December 2008, just before Mr. Obama was inaugurated, and found that 32 percent were “optimistic” about Mr. Obama as their commander in chief, while 30 percent were pessimistic and 35 percent were uncertain.
Given that the military is “a fairly conservative lot,” Mr. Obama inevitably faced an uphill battle in winning over many of the rank and file, Mr. Eaton said.
But the president’s stock has risen with moves such as traveling to Dover Air Force Base to be present for the arrival of bodies of troops killed in combat, visiting Walter Reed Army Medical Center to talk with wounded troops, backing commanders’ requests for more unmanned drones and signing the GI bill last summer.
“There is a shift in mood - it’s not a tectonic plate shift, but it’s a drift - the acknowledgment that this president has been very successful in the counterterrorism war that we are waging in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia,” he said. “We’ve got a military that is coming to grips with the fact that they have a competent commander in chief.”
That is a change from May 2009, when the new president did an about-face on the release of photos that allegedly showed U.S. troops abusing prisoners, deciding to block their court-ordered release after commanders on the ground said they would set back the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In September last year, after Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for more troops in Afghanistan was leaked to The Washington Post, Mr. Obama took heat for taking several weeks to mull it over, eventually issuing orders for a 30,000-troop surge in early December. Mr. Obama fired Gen. McChrystal in June after he and members of his staff spoke indiscreetly in a Rolling Stone magazine article.
Though veterans organizations give Mr. Obama high marks on the policies that matter most to them, they bristled at an early proposal within the administration to require veterans who were wounded in combat to bill their third-party insurers. But Peter Gaytan, executive director of the American Legion, said the episode is an example of the White House’s willingness to listen to and work with veterans groups, who talked officials out of the idea.
“His ability to listen to us, to sit down and talk … shows us that he is willing to do what’s right,” Mr. Gaytan said.
The American Legion has praised Mr. Obama for following through on his promise to boost VA funding. Even amid competing priorities and a deepening recession last year, he secured the biggest budget increase in 30 years. This year, despite proposing a freeze on other domestic spending, he asked for 10 percent more.