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Ward Carroll Headshot

Will Obama Get the Vet Vote?

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Through the spring and summer of 2008 I was witness to a sea change. Military veterans -- both officer and enlisted -- were warming to the notion of Barack Obama as president -- an eye-opener in that during previous election cycles this same demographic had skewed predominantly Republican.

While covering the Democratic National Convention in Denver I had the chance to pulse many of the "Veterans for Obama" principals. All of them sounded a similar theme around why they'd shifted from the moderate-right to the moderate-left: They were put off by the perceived perfidy of the Bush Administration and felt somewhat duped by the calls to action they'd responded to. It was similar to the feeling of moderates overall during that presidential race but more personal in that these vets had put themselves in harm's way for a cause that felt increasingly contrived and Machiavellian as the facts surrounding the wars emerged and the campaign wore on. Most important to the political spectrum is that the support of this cohort of vets informed the eventual outcome of the election.

Veteran voices are again emerging as a weather vane of sorts, and this time they're more strident and arguably less focused than those of 2008. The Occupy Wall Street movement has given them a forum to vent their frustrations. "For 10 years, we have been fighting wars that have enriched the wealthiest 1 percent, decimated our economy and left our nation with a generation of traumatized and wounded veterans that will require care for years to come," said Joseph Carter, a 27 year-old Iraq War vet, at a recent Occupy event in New York City as reported by AP.

"I swore to defend their freedoms, and they were being taken away. It's very unconstitutional," said James McBride, an Army Reserve veteran "who said he was less than honorably discharged for medical reasons."

For all of the press coverage of the Occupy movement what remains unclear is what linkages the electorate -- war veteran and otherwise -- will make between Wall Street and the Obama administration. And while it's safe to suggest that those who participate in Occupy events are not political moderates, per se, their sentiments may resonate with those who are. And if they do Obama could suffer from the same loss of faith that swayed moderate voters in his direction last go 'round.

This irony is heightened by the fact that Obama has done a laudable job as commander-in-chief, especially considering his lack of military experience coming into the job. The administration has attended to veteran benefit issues, including those surrounding employability. And the president has worked his way through the "bad actors" target list, most notably authorizing the offing of Osama Bin Laden and indirectly facilitating a similar fate for Muammar Gaddhafi.

But for those accomplishments, Obama finds himself sort of where George H.W. Bush was in the months after Desert Storm. That had been as clean as war gets -- 100 days worth with a decisive end and a national victory parade when the troops got home. Plus the war had made for great TV -- aircraft gun camera footage narrated by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf himself. It was ratings gold across the country. (Amazing to think how huge CNN was then.) Immediately following the hostilities Bush the Father's approval ratings were at a whopping 85 percent. A second term was all but guaranteed.

Enter James Carville et. al. beating the "It's the economy, stupid" drums. Unemployment was up. The deficit was too high and threatened America's position across the globe. (Sound familiar?) Whatever the Bush campaign tried to do to remind the voters of preserving Kuwait's freedom as a way to counter the opposition's economy-focused strategy fell on deaf ears. The rest is Clinton White House history (with its own strained relationship with the military -- "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," anyone?).

This parallel isn't lost on the Obama campaign, even in this early phase of the election. I recently sat down with a former administration official, and while he accepted the Bush 41 similarities, he added that Obama wouldn't attempt to stymie Republican focus on the economy with tales of SEAL Team 6 popping OBL (as much as they'd like to). They know nobody cares in the face of a recession, a housing crisis, and near double-digit unemployment.

But even if vets make the linkage between Wall Street's greed and Obama's policies, they still may not bail on him. After all, so far the other side hasn't done a whole lot to earn their allegiance.

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