War vets miss commander in chief George W. Bush

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans prefer George W. Bush to Barack Obama as commander in chief, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

Sixty-five percent of post-9/11 veterans say that Bush was a good commander in chief while just 42 percent say the same of Obama. That lopsided preference comes despite veterans' lukewarm assessments of the wars begun under Bush's watch.

 

Dig into the poll  data and you see several clues for why Bush's image is stronger than Obama's.

1. Veterans don't fault Bush for Iraq

The Iraq war defined Bush's tenure and dragged his job approval ratings among the general public to record lows. But while half of veterans say the Iraq war was not worth fighting, 53 percent of this group see Bush as a good commander in chief. Not surprisingly, Bush is even more popular among those who say Iraq was worth the costs, with 80 percent in this group calling him a good commander in chief.

Obama hasn't received much love even from veterans who are skeptics of the Iraq war he famously opposed from the start. Some 45 percent of vets who say Iraq has not been worth the costs rate Obama a good commander in chief, similar to the opinions about Obama among those who say the war was worth fighting (40 percent). This contrasts somewhat with a 2011 Pew Research Center survey finding that post-9/11 veterans who approve of Obama's performance as a military leader also were more apt to doubt the Iraq war's worth.

2. Obama's overall popularity may be the real anchor

While 42 percent of veterans say Obama is a good commander in chief, his overall approval rating was even lower at just 32 percent. Despite differing question wordings (yes-no for commander in chief vs. approve-disapprove handling his job overall), the gap indicates that veterans may see Obama's military leadership as a relative strong suit for a president they otherwise dislike. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans lean more Republican and conservative than other Americans, a factor that makes them more apt to be skeptical of a Democratic president generically.

3. Distance makes the heart grow fonder

One striking finding from the survey is how closely veterans have hitched their political loyalties to their views of the wars. This is also true of their commander in chief, where 75 percent of Democrats and 17 percent of Republicans say Obama is a good commander in chief, a 58-point gap. Bush also sparks partisan divisions, but the gap is a smaller 39 points between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats are more than twice as likely to say Bush is a good commander in chief as Republicans are to say Obama is (46 percent vs. 17 percent).

But did Democratic service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan support Bush as much while he was at the helm? Historical data for veterans are not available for comparison, but a 2013 Washington Post-ABC News poll found Bush's overall job approval has grown dramatically since he left office, up more than 20 points since his record low marks in 2008.

4. Veterans' groups that support Obama are in the minority

Fifty-one percent of active-duty service members and women say Obama is a good commander in chief, but both of these groups account for a less than a quarter of all of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama's efforts to trim military spending may also be hampering his ratings. Obama is seen as a good leader among veterans who believe that benefits for future generations of troops should be reduced in times of budget deficits; 55 percent in this group say Obama is a good commander in chief. But just 12 percent of veterans surveyed took this position, and Obama's ratings as a military leader fall to 41 percent among the vast majority of veterans who oppose benefit cuts even in times of deficit. 

While Obama and Republicans both agreed to limited military benefit cuts in the past (before reversing them), the survey indicates that Obama's broader efforts to reduce military spending as the wars draw down runs up against a population of veterans who are deeply skeptical of being denied benefits they were promised.

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

Read more from the Post-Kaiser Iraq and Afghanistan veterans survey: 

For recent veterans, a legacy of pride and pain.

Key findings from the poll.

Interactive poll results and how the survey was conducted.

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