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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.

By Staff writer / November 7, 2009

President Obama salutes when greeting the remains of fallen soldiers at Dover Air Force Base last month.

Jim Young/Reuters

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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.

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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."