“Just wanted to say hi, hey guys,” Obama said as he walked into the Anderson dining hall which was decked out in Christmas decorations.
The diners represented seven military units -- Marine and Navy -- some of whom were joined by their families for Christmas dinner.
As Obama entered the room, it was absent of the regular fanfare of cheering and clapping. The diners were polite, staying seated at their respective tables and waited for the president-elect to come to them to stand up.
Obama didn't eat his holiday dinner at the base. A Navy officer who was present described the event as a "photo op," although (in fairness), plenty of politicians, from both sides of the aisle, have used the military as a convenient backdrop. There's no reason that Mr. Obama should be any different than the commanders-in-chief who came before him.
But the reception at that Marine dining facility underscores another reality for the incoming president. Many members of the armed forces remain wary of him and the policies he has vowed to implement. A new Military Times poll finds 60% of military personnel are "uncertain" or "pessimistic" about the president-elect. By comparison, only a third described themselves as "optimistic" about Mr. Obama.
Military Times graphic
A majority of respondents also said they disapprove of Obama's stated plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 16 months. And by a wider margin--60%--they disagree with with his calls to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on gays in the military. However, almost three-quarters of those surveyed said they would continue with their military careers, even if Mr. Obama allows gays to serve openly. Twenty-three percent said they would leave the military or consider it if the policy is changed.
In follow-up interviews conducted by Military Times, some participants expressed serious concerns about their new commander-in-chief, and his stated policy goals:
“Being that the Marine Corps can be sent anywhere in the world with the snap of his fingers, nobody has confidence in this guy as commander in chief,” said one lance corporal who asked not to be identified.
How are you going to safely pull combat troops out of Iraq?” said Air Force 1st Lt. Rachel Kleinpeter, an intelligence officer with the 100th Operations Support Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, England. “And if you’re pulling out combat troops, who are you leaving to help support what’s left? What happens if Iraq falls back into chaos? Are we going to be there in five years doing the same thing over again?”
The findings are part of the Times' annual survey of military personnel. While the mail-in poll isn't considered scientific, it does offer one of the few opinion snapshots of the armed forces. The paper cautions that the survey--which is based on its subscriber list--under-represents minorities, junior enlisted members and female personnel. But is is considered a reliable barometer of "career" military members, officers and enlisted personnel who have logged multiple tours, and plan to serve until retirement.
If the survey has any good news for the Obama team, it is reflected in its timing. The incoming president has years to improve his standing among military members and the visit to that Marine base represents a tentative start. Rejecting a hasty retreat from Iraq--a position that Mr. Obama seems to be embracing--would be a good start, along with staying the course in Afghanistan. The new commander-in-chief also needs to get behind increases in pay and benefits for military members.
Still, the incoming president faces an uphill battle in winning the support of the troops. Military personnel, who voted for Republican John McCain by more than a 3-1 margin, are rightfully wary of an unabashed liberal in the Oval Office.
He also suffers because of "brand identification." Members of the armed forces are leery of Democrats, who cut defense programs the last time they controlled the White House. With many of the same, Clinton-era officials now poised to serve in an Obama Administration, they have every right to be suspicious.