Could Fort Hood visit redefine Obama's relationship with the military?
Recent Democratic presidents have had an uneasy relationship with the armed forces. Obama’s visit to Fort Hood’s memorial service could set the tone for a new rapport with those in uniform.
Fort Hood, Texas — Under fire from conservatives for lighthearted comments made before his acknowledgment of the Fort Hood tragedy, President Obama will soon arrive at this grief-stricken Army base to assess the investigation, comfort the troops, and pray for the fallen.
Experts say the Tuesday memorial service for troops killed during a deadly one-man rampage last Thursday could be a landmark moment for a president in the middle of a major decision on a troop surge in Afghanistan. Only raising the stakes, Obama is also trying to reverse nearly 50 years of tension between Democrats and the military as US soldiers battle along two major foreign fronts. A large share of that fighting force has at some point walked through the gates of Fort Hood here in the Central Texas brush country.
"Obama doesn't have a lot of experience with the military, so in a sense, I don't think he'll be on trial [at Fort Hood], but he does fight a natural suspicion of Democrats in the military," says Richard Kohn, a University of North Carolina historian and expert on presidential wartime leadership.
"The thing to do is compare his response and emotional intelligence with them when he's at Fort Hood as opposed to his normal kind of behavior with other groups," adds Mr. Kohn. "Whether it'll have the emotional content that many military people expect or seek and whether that can balance or even cancel the natural suspicion is a question."
The relationship of Democratic presidents with the armed forces is a long, storied, and often tension-filled one. Presidents Clinton, Carter, Johnson and even Truman all had deep disagreements with the military, with Clinton clashing dramatically with the brass over gay enlistees, resulting in the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Obama critics have pointed to his lack of face-to-face meetings with Gen. Stanley McChrystal as a sign of tension with the military, with some going so far as to charge that Obama is playing politics while US troops face an increasingly deadly insurgency in Afghanistan.
Another explanation is that Obama is trying to establish a more formal and traditional relationship with the military as compared to President Bush, who usually deferred automatically to military leaders when it came to policy.
"What Obama is trying to do is to restore the proper sense of, 'I'm the guy in charge,'" says Mr. Kohn. "What you're hearing is a kind of partisan buzz that would like to reframe and cancel out Obama's very concerted effort not to be victimized by that history of Democratic presidents and the military."
Still, some conservatives called into question Obama's demeanor Thursday night. During an Indian tribal conference speech, Obama addressed the Fort Hood tragedy, saying his gravest responsibility as president was the welfare of US troops.
But a few moments before, he had given a "shout-out" to an honoree in the room during a lighthearted moment.
Mr. Blakeman said he didn't think Obama's comments were "ill-intended," but added, "He's not comfortable enough in his role yet."
During his radio address Saturday, Obama said: “It is an act of violence that would have been heartbreaking had it occurred anyplace in America. It is a crime that would have horrified us had its victims been Americans of any background. But it's all the more heartbreaking and all the more despicable because of the place where it occurred and the patriots who were its victims.”
As with many presidents who have not served in the military, decorum can be an issue for Obama, who seems to be more comfortable hashing out policy than barking orders.
As the military now faces a unique and rare tragedy, Obama's cool, lawyerly exterior is likely to be tested as he takes on the somber mantle of "consoler-in-chief," as Kohn says.
"It's easier for some presidents than others to be the commander-in-chief depending on how comfortable they are taking on strict authority," adds Terry Sullivan, a presidential leadership fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "The first rule of national politics is you can tell a man to go to hell but you can't make him go. So dealing with people who are absolute subordinates in the strict military sense is unnatural for most American politicians."
Amidst a strip of barbershops and tattoo parlors in Killeen, Texas, on the edge of Fort Hood, Military Depot owner Louis Smien says GIs on the whole seem to back Obama more than they did former president Bush, particularly because he's talked about bringing more troops home.
Leading a memorial service for soldiers who died in a place where they're supposed to be safe from attack could create a new connection between Obama and the troops, he says.
"A lot of guys are in fear for their lives going over there," says Mr. Smien "So they like the idea of a president questioning what we're doing overseas."
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