Susan Walsh / AP
Monday, July 23, 2012 | 3:18 p.m.
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Drawing on his dual role as commander in chief and presidential candidate in a tough re-election bid, President Barack Obama pressed for the support of the nation’s veterans Monday, arguing he has protected veterans benefits, strengthened America’s reputation as a world leader and kept his promises to end two wars in a way that would make the country proud.
In a 30-minute address at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Obama challenged veterans to not only listen to his words, but review his track record from the past four years.
Striking chords that have buoyed his foreign policy approval rating, Obama touted his plan to bring the war in Afghanistan to a close, reminded the audience that “today no American is fighting in Iraq” and plugged his decision to order the killing of Osama bin Laden despite the fact he was holed up in Pakistan.
That last line prompted a standing ovation among a crowd that likely won’t break Obama’s way in November, according to public opinion polls.
“So, VFW, these are the promises I made. These are the promises I’ve kept. Where we still have work to do, we will not rest,” Obama said to a mostly cheering crowd.
On Tuesday, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, will address the same VFW convention crowd, launching a three-country international tour in which he hopes to prove his foreign policy chops.
Despite the raging presidential election, Obama did not name his Republican rival for the presidency a single time. But he did take at least one veiled swipe at Romney.
“As long as I’m president, I will not allow VA health care to be turned into a vouchers system, subject to the whims of the insurance market,” Obama said. “Some have argued for this plan. I could not disagree more. You don’t need vouchers. You need the VA health care you have earned and that you depend on.”
In 2011, Romney flirted with the idea of partially privatizing veterans health benefits, telling a crowd in South Carolina that introducing private sector competition could drive improvements to the government-run program.
“Somebody else could come in and say each solider has x thousand dollars attributed to them and then they can choose where they want to go in the government system or the private system with the money that follows them,” Romney said, according to news reports. “Like what happens in schools in Florida, where people have a voucher that goes with them.”
Romney’s spokesman Mason Harrison shot back that Obama is the only candidate to have floated an actual privatization plan, referring to the Obama administration’s short-lived proposal to bill private insurance companies for combat-related injuries.
The proposal was designed to save Veterans Affairs more than $500 million.
“Mitt Romney is only interested in providing veterans with the world-class care they deserve and reversing the crippling defense cuts and failed policies of the Obama administration,” Harrison said.
Obama spent a brief two hours in Reno, sandwiching his speech to veterans between fundraising trips in San Francisco and Portland. He began his West Coast tour with a stop in Aurora, Colo., to spend time with the victims of the mass shooting there.
Obama opened his Reno speech with memories of the veterans wounded and killed in that attack, including former Reno resident Jonathan Blunt, 26.
“He was a veteran of three Navy tours. His family and friends will always know in that theater he gave his own life to save another,” Obama said of Blunt, whose wife and children still live in Reno.
While Obama spent most of his time talking about veterans programs — including health care, job retraining and education — he dipped a few times into his campaign stump speech, blaming Congress for its inability to move on some of his priorities.
He assured veterans that VA programs are exempt from the automatic cuts that will kick in next year if Congress fails to reach an agreement on the deficit.
But he said the defense cuts could become a reality if Congress doesn’t agree to “a balanced approach that reduces the deficit and keeps our military strong.”
Obama reiterated his support for allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire for those making more than $250,000.
“Instead of making tough choices to reduce the deficit, they would rather protect tax cuts for some of the wealthiest Americans, even if it risks big cuts in our military,” Obama said of some Republicans in Congress.
“I’ve got to tell you VFW, I disagree. If the choice is between tax cuts that the wealthiest Americans don’t need and funding our troops that we definitely need to keep our country strong, I will stand with our troops every single time.”
Polls show that Obama trails Romney among veteran voters — a strong segment of the electorate in Nevada. And while the VFW crowd gave Obama several standing ovations and applauded many of his initiatives, not everyone considered themselves supporters.
“It’s the lesser of two evils, in my book,” Mike Poland of Kansas City, Mo., said before Obama’s speech. “I’m going with Romney. I don’t like some of Obama’s planned spending cuts.”
After the speech, however, a surprised Poland tracked down the reporter to say he may have been won over by Obama’s speech.
“I was impressed by what he said. And I didn’t think I would be,” Poland said. “If he can walk the walk as well as talk the talk, I could be good with that.”