Her role here Tuesday night — introducing Michelle Obama, whose husband Brye supports — offered a stark illustration of the new place America’s wars occupy in the tight presidential race and the important role those who have been touched by the wars are playing in the campaign.
After decades of defining Republican presidential candidates and their nominating conventions, the nation’s wars were virtually invisible at last week’s GOP gathering in Tampa. Republican nominee Mitt Romney did not even mention the Afghanistan war in his acceptance speech, an omission that drew criticism from within his own party.
It is the traditionally antiwar Democrats who this year will be featuring the Afghanistan mission, the now-concluded war in Iraq, and the men and women who have fought in them. In addition to the president and the first lady, Vice President Biden and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) are expected to mention the Afghanistan war in speeches with a focus on foreign policy.
The Democrats’ approach is not free of risk, given that a large majority of Americans do not think the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting. And initial support for Obama’s 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan faded within a year, according to Washington Post polling.
Romney also maintains an advantage among veterans — the Republican leads Obama by 52 percent to 41 percent in households containing a veteran registered to vote, according to a Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll published last month.
Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it is difficult to talk about the war given its unpopularity, impending defense cuts by Congress and several recent pessimistic assessments of the war’s course.
“It certainly isn’t the good war anymore,” Cordesman said. “It certainly isn’t one you are going to want to spend more money and people on. So how do you discuss it?”
Obama and his party will emphasize during the convention his plan to end the war, rather than his decision early on in his term to escalate troop levels. He will celebrate his order to send in a Navy SEAL team to Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden — a success that his surrogates, led by Biden, have talked about on the campaign trail for some time. And Obama will take credit for ending the Iraq war. His opposition to that conflict helped define his candidacy four years ago.
Speakers this week will also talk about the health and well-being of the men and women who have fought in the nation’s recent wars.
At the Republican National Convention last week, these issues were largely ignored. Not only did Romney avoid talking about Afghanistan, but veterans issues, including their health and employment prospects, were hardly mentioned during the three-day event. The staggering economy was the convention’s primary topic.
The absence of a strong military focus at the Tampa gathering was a noticeable departure from the Republicans’ two previous conventions.
The 2004 GOP convention was held in New York City days before the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, and George W. Bush used the setting to highlight his response to the attacks. One speaker after another questioned whether Kerry, the Democratic nominee and a decorated Vietnam veteran, could keep the country safe.
Four years ago, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) emphasized his national security credentials and history as a Vietnam veteran who, after being shot down over North Vietnam, spent years in a Hanoi prison camp. McCain’s record stood in contrast to that of Obama, who has never served in the military.
But neither has Romney. That, in part, undermines his ability to make a case for his somewhat vaguely defined national security policy against a president who scores high in most polls for his handling of foreign affairs, if not the Afghanistan war itself.
Obama has outlined a plan to pull U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, leaving behind units to carry out counterterrorism operations and train Afghan national forces.
“The president’s plan is about where the country is on the war — a gradual withdrawal — and the fact we have drones and developed other ways of battling terrorism makes a difference,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in an interview Tuesday.
Speaking to troops at Fort Bliss, Tex., last week, Obama said he would protect the military budget from unnecessary cuts and pledged to strengthen mental health services for service members, in the hopes of reducing the high suicide rates among those returning from war to a difficult job market.
“I know that you join me in saying to everyone who’s ever worn the uniform: If you’re hurting, it’s not a sign of weakness to seek help; it’s a sign of strength,” Obama said.
On Tuesday, as the first lady headed for Charlotte, Obama spoke at Norfolk State University.
There he was introduced by a Vietnam veteran, who told the audience that the president stood up for military families “not because it’s popular but because it’s the right thing to do.”
To a prime-time television audience, Michelle Obama began Tuesday to send that message nationally.
Peyton Craighill, Scott Clement in Washington and Amy Gardner in Charlotte contributed to this report.