COLORADO SPRINGS – President Obama promoted his vision for a streamlined military, fewer troops in the Middle East and coalition-based foreign policy in his commencement address Wednesday at the Air Force Academy.
The White House has drawn criticism for proposing deep cuts in defense spending, but the president was greeted by cheers and applause during his address at Falcon Stadium from the 1,100 graduates and their families.
“Today, you step forward in a different world. You are the first class in nine years that will graduate into a world where there are no Americans fighting in Iraq,” said Obama. “For the first time in your lives–and thanks to Air Force personnel who did their part–Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat to our country. We’ve put al Qaeda on the path to defeat.”
Obama referred several times to the death of the terrorist bin Laden, drawing enthusiastic cheers for a foreign policy victory that occurred on his watch and has since become an integral part of his campaign message.
The president predicted that the next decade would be an “American Century” marked by “a new era of American leadership.”
“I see an American Century because you are part of the finest, most capable military the world has ever known,” said Obama. “No other nation even comes close. Yes, as today’s wars end, our military–and our Air Force–will be leaner. But as Commander in Chief, I will not allow us to make the mistakes of the past.”
His vision for the scaled-down military sounded like the Denver Broncos defensive line under former coach Mike Shanahan: smaller but faster, lighter but more athletic, leaner but meaner.
“We still face very serious threats,” said Obama. “We must be vigilant. So, guided by our new defense strategy, we’ll keep our military–and our Air Force–fast, flexible and versatile. We will maintain our military superiority in all areas–air, land, sea, space and cyber.”
The emphasis on foreign policy is seen by analysts as a harbinger as the president’s reelection strategy. While polls show most Americans giving Obama low marks for his record on the economy, he receives positive feedback for his handling of international affairs.
“He has a very good foreign-policy rating, much better than his domestic-policy rating,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli.
The Air Force Academy speech marks Obama’s second visit to Colorado in less than a month. He spoke to students at the University of Colorado Boulder in April in what was seen as part of his campaign’s push to energize younger voters.
“He’s targeting specific audiences: college audiences, Hispanic audiences at the predominantly Hispanic high school, and now military veterans,” said Ciruli. “Everything is very much geared toward these niche audiences.”
As a swing state that supported Obama in 2008, Colorado is viewed as a key piece of the president’s reelection strategy against likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Already, Denver television stations are airing at least three pro-Obama or anti-Romney ads.
Romney made a campaign stop in Colorado two weeks ago, and both candidates are expected to visit frequently between now and the Nov. 6 election.
The president was joined on the platform by several Colorado Democratic dignitaries, notably Gov. John Hickenlooper, Congressman Jared Polis and state Representative Pete Lee, as well as Republican Congressman Cory Gardner.
Missing was Congressman Doug Lamborn, whose district includes the Air Force Academy. Lamborn spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said the congressman was invited to attend but was forced to decline because he had already promised to speak at the Wasson High School graduation in Colorado Springs.
Colorado Republicans responded to the president’s remarks by moving to change the subject back to the struggling economy. Lamborn released a statement Wednesday urging the White House to back H.R. 3408, his bill forcing approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, opening oil-shale development in Western Colorado and allowing energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“Mr. President, we need more jobs, not more speeches,” said Lamborn. “Your failed economic policies have created an economy where half of our graduating college seniors will either be unemployed or underemployed.”
The president followed his commencement address by headlining a fundraiser at the Hyatt Regency Denver at the Colorado Convention Center. General-admission tickets for the event, which attracted 700 supporters, started at $500.