COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — President Barack Obama declared Wednesday the world has a "new feeling about America" and more respect for its leadership, weaving re-election themes into a commencement speech to jubilant graduates of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
"We can say with confidence and pride: The United States is stronger, safer and more respected in the world," Obama told more than 1,000 graduates, dressed in their blue dress coats and yellow sashes for a ceremony in the Air Force football stadium.
In characterizing the changes under his watch, Obama used a speech before a military audience to make it clear that he thinks "American is exceptional" – a counterargument to Republican Mitt Romney, his rival for the White House, who has challenged Obama's belief in America.
And Obama had other unmistakable rebuttals to Romney in the graduation speech, delivered hours before he shifted toward political fundraising out West.
Obama said the United States "led from the front" in an international military campaign in Libya, countering a Romney assertion that the president has led from behind in world affairs. And Obama insisted the U.S. will maintain its military superiority in the world, amid Romney's charges Obama is poised to weaken U.S. defenses.
Obama told the cadets that they are the first class in nearly a decade to graduate into a world that has no Osama bin Laden, no war in Iraq and no questions about when the war in Afghanistan will end.
The president said a disappearing "dark cloud of war" will mean a less strained and better prepared military, and more use of other U.S. power – diplomatic, economic and humanitarian.
"Even as we've done the work of ending these wars, we've laid the foundation for a new era of American leadership," Obama said. "And now, cadets, we have to build on it. Let's start by putting aside the tired notion that says our influence has waned, that America is in decline. We've heard that talk before."
The president spoke in Colorado just as Romney was across the street from the White House, delivering a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which he condemned Obama's record on education. Obama also reiterated the economic themes of his campaign, spelling out a vision of debt reduction with targeted spending.
Obama was keeping up a presidential tradition of speaking to one of the service academies every year at graduation time. His speech followed a diplomatic flurry in which he hosted the NATO summit in Chicago, where allies cemented an exit strategy for the Afghanistan war, and the G-8 summit at Camp David in Maryland.
"There's a new feeling about America," Obama said. "I see it everywhere I go, from London and Prague, to Tokyo and Seoul, to Rio and Jakarta," Obama said. "There's a new confidence in our leadership."
NATO allies this week affirmed that the war in Afghanistan will halt at the end of 2014. The final U.S. troops left Iraq at the end of last year.
A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, Kirsten Kukowski, said Obama's promises have not yielded enough results for today's college graduates.
"America's youth face soaring unemployment, underemployment and rising tuition," she said. "It's time to elect a president who treats future generations as a priority and not just a political talking point."
Since 2009, Obama has delivered commencement addresses at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. Obama's commencement speech in Colorado was his last of the 2012 spring season.
Following his speech, the president was headed to fundraisers in Denver and California's Silicon Valley.