FORT LEE, Va. — Military personnel and veterans challenged President Obama, often aggressively, on his refusal to use the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” his decision to open combat jobs up to women and the performance of the Department of Veterans Affairs at a town hall meeting here Wednesday.
Obama was at this Army base near Richmond to take part in a military-focused special that aired Wednesday night on CNN. The cable network selected questioners who were respectful but who reflected a military population that is more conservative than the population as a whole and generally skeptical of the president’s performance as commander in chief over the past eight years.
Obama’s appearance came on the same day he announced that he was sending 600 more troops to Iraq, a war that the president thought he had ended when he withdrew U.S. forces from the country in late 2011. The additional forces will boost the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to just more than 5,000, ahead of an Iraqi-led offensive on Mosul planned for the coming weeks.
Obama emphasized that Iraqi forces would do the vast majority of the fighting, while U.S. troops would provide air support, logistical help and advice. “They are engaging in a fight that is dangerous,” Obama said of the U.S. troops in Iraq. “We are grateful for their sacrifice, and I never forget it.”
At a time of deep political polarization in the United States, White House officials have sought to use the town hall format to put the president in front of audiences that disagree with him.
The latest CNN town hall followed that pattern from the opening question, in which an Army chaplain asked Obama why there had been “a substantial increase in terror attacks around the world” since he took office.
Obama challenged the premise, saying that the number of terrorist attacks worldwide had not “substantially increased,” despite some recent high-profile attacks in the Middle East and Europe. At home, the president said that military operations, better policing and improved intelligence had made the country safer.
A mother whose 19-year-old son was killed in Baghdad in 2007 pressed Obama more directly on the subject, asking him, “Why do you still refuse to use the term ‘Islamic terrorism’?” Obama countered that he did not want to conflate murderous terrorists with “the billion Muslims . . . who are peaceful, who are responsible, who in this country are our fellow troops.”
An active-duty Marine officer challenged the president’s decision to open combat jobs to women, saying that studies conducted by the Marine Corps showed that such units performed “notably worse” and that women “suffered staggeringly higher rates of injury.”
“Why were these tangible, negative consequences disregarded?” she asked.
Obama said that he had not acted out of political correctness and noted that women have been fighting at great risk in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade. “I want to make sure our starting assumption is that if you can do the job, you should be able to get the job,” he said.
A mortuary affairs officer, who oversees a unit that recovers the bodies of soldiers killed in combat, asked Obama about the decision by some National Football League players to protest police shootings of black men by kneeling during the national anthem. Obama said that he both recognized the importance of the anthem to military families and respected the right of Americans to protest.
“Part of what makes this country special is that we respect people’s rights to have a different opinion,” he said.
Among the toughest questions he fielded was one from a woman who said her husband had waited a year for an appointment from VA. When he finally saw a doctor, his cancer was misdiagnosed and not treated.
“First of all, my heart goes out to you,” Obama said. He then said that he had increased the VA budget by 85 percent over the course of his presidency but that there was more work to do.