First lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to support military families wins bipartisan praise. It may be good politics, too.
The face of the U.S. military is changing to become more diverse in gender and race, meaning the armed forces vote is less reliably Republican.
“It happens to be good policy framed in a way that’s good politics for them,” said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who worked on the National Security Council under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
“I would not accuse them of being motivated by the politics -- I think they’re probably sincerely motivated by the policy -- but they’re not opposed to the political benefit,” said Feaver.
In 1975, the composition of new recruits was 5 percent Hispanic and 9 percent female. By 2010, the number of Hispanic recruits had more than tripled to 17 percent and the number of women almost doubled to 17 percent.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Jason Dempsey, who helped shape Joining Forces, an initiative created by the first lady and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, said the country is entering “an era when the military vote is up for grabs.” The partisan divide is “softer than it has been in a long time.”
While the majority of active-duty Army members vote Republican, more planned to vote for Obama in 2008 than they did for Democratic candidate John Kerry in 2004, according to an analysis conducted by Dempsey of a 2008 Military Times poll.
Michelle Obama and Jill Biden started Joining Forces a year ago with the intention of helping military families cope with extended separations, unemployment and other issues.
The jobless rate for veterans who have served since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was 12.1 percent last year, up from 11.5 percent in 2010, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
During an April 4 conference call with reporters to announce pledges of more than 15,000 jobs for service members’ spouses from U.S. companies, the first lady lauded the men and women who she said “take on so much.”
“Just think of it -- every couple of years they are packing up and they’re moving from state to state,” she said. “Oftentimes they’re doing the work of two parents.”
So far, the program has led to more than 50,000 veterans and military spouses being hired and pledges from businesses to employ at least 160,000 more. Companies participating in the initiative include Sears Holdings Corp., Comcast Corp. and Microsoft Corp.
The program is also working to improve training for doctors and nurses who treat military veterans suffering from combat trauma, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and on efforts to make it easier for military spouses to transfer state professional licenses.
Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry is a supporter of the program. “I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and hope and assume it’s not political,” he said.
The Obama administration said politics plays no role in Joining Forces. Kristina Schake, the first lady’s communications director, said Obama “takes her personal responsibility seriously and her work to rally support for military members and their families as part of Joining Forces will continue and will remain separate from any election-year political activity.”
Michelle Obama emphasized the nonpartisan nature of the program in an April 6 interview with American Forces Press Service, saying the administration wants “to set up a structure to ensure this continues, regardless of who’s in office.”
Still, in a close election, the votes cast by the more than 1.4 million active duty military personnel, and the support of their approximately 2 million spouses and dependents, could be decisive.
The Obama-Biden re-election campaign is running a veterans and military family outreach program and has signed up almost 11,000 veterans and military family member volunteers.
“In 2008 Barack made a promise that as president he would bring the Iraq war to a responsible end; he kept his word,” Michelle Obama said in an Internet video posted on the Obama campaign’s website. “When he took office more than 140,000 troops were stationed in Iraq. This past December the last of our soldiers came home.”
The first lady and the vice president’s wife marked the one-year anniversary of Joining Forces last week -- in the battleground states of Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
“In April of a presidential election year every single thing the first lady does is political,” said Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
North Carolina, which Obama won by about 14,000 votes -- or 1 percentage point -- in 2008, is home to the Army’s Fort Bragg and the Marines’ Camp Lejeune. Michelle Obama’s first trip outside Washington in March 2009 was to Fort Bragg. The president marked the end of the Iraq war with his own visit to the fort.
Richard Kohn, an emeritus professor of military history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said Obama has helped Democrats make a case with military voters and their families with the killing of Osama bin Laden, the increase in U.S. drone strikes, and the way the president has “managed to maneuver it so that Republicans are responsible” for some $500 billion in defense cuts during the next decade if a deficit deal isn’t reached by January 2013.
Not Since Truman
Meanwhile, Kohn said, “You haven’t heard a Democratic president talk in such glowing or laudatory terms about military service probably in two generations since Truman.”
North Carolina Republican Party Chairman and former Representative Robin Hayes, who served on the Armed Services Committee and represented the Fort Bragg area in Congress, said he expects Obama’s courtship of the military to be outweighed by his willingness to reduce the defense budget.
While Hayes said he doesn’t dispute Obama’s motives, “it’s only a day or two before it shows up in a political ad.”