The commander in chief was introduced this morning as the traditional presidential ruffles, flourishes and “Hail to the Chief” played in the background at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
The 10,000 or so men and women attending the American Legion convention in downtown Minneapolis stood when President Barack Obama entered the room. Most applauded, if only briefly, and stayed standing.
But there was little excitement. He was greeted respectfully, not warmly.
It was only after his 36-minute speech that the president seemed to generate some excitement as he worked the crowd at the front of the hall. Many convention delegates rushed from the back, hoping to catch a picture on their cell phones, perhaps even shake his hand.
But his speech didn’t electrify.
A strange twist
In fact, there was a strange twist.
When the president was introduced, American Legion National Commander Jimmie Foster listed many of the things the Obama administration has done for veterans and then said: “And who can forget his announcement … Osama Bin Laden has been killed.”
Foster’s reference drew big applause.
But when Obama himself mentioned the killing of Bin Laden, the response was not so enthusiastic.
Surprisingly, the biggest, warmest applause for the president came when he talked of his new policy concerning American service members who commit suicide:
“I send condolence letters to the families of service members who take their lives while deployed in a combat zone,” the president said. “These American patriots did not die because they were weak. They were warriors.”
The conventioneers stood and applauded, at length, at that point in the speech.
Certainly, the president tried to work a crowd that earlier in the morning had shown enthusiasm for a long line of speakers.
There was the real Rudy from the 1993 movie “Rudy.” Rudy Ruettiger, a motivational speaker, got a good laugh when he looked out over the crowd and said, “I almost feel like the president — but I have notes.”
Miss America, Teresa Scanlon, also was received with some enthusiasm and received big applause when she said: “My generation does appreciate your sacrifice. I pray every day we will not forget those who were lost.”
Even Peter Ole, who has been pounding the keyboard for 34 years at Legion Conventions, got people happily tapping their toes, especially when he did his medley of songs that honor each of the services.
But the president?
No toe tapping, not much buzz.
A salute to all eras
Even the president seemed restrained, although he was pushing all the right buttons. For example, he referred to vets of all eras.
He spoke of Frank Buckles, who died in February, the last survivor of World War I. There was, of course, praise for the accomplishments of the World War II vets, although fewer and fewer of them are attending conventions.
There was a special mention of Vietnam vets that was appreciated by the crowd:
“When communist forces in Vietnam unleashed the Tet offensive, it fueled the debate here at home that raged over that war. You, our Vietnam veterans, didn’t always receive the respect you deserved, which was a national shame. But let it be remembered that you won every major battle of that war.”
The Legionnaires liked that. A few people, who looked to be of the Vietnam era, even stood and applauded.
The president paid special attention to the military members of “the 9/11 generation,” and offered praise for “the 5 million Americans who have worn the uniform over the past 10 years.”
But Obama also seemed to take some digs at superficial support for veterans, noting that just “1 percent of Americans wears the uniform. . So many institutions have shirked their obligations.”
He didn’t specificy the institutions he had in mind.
Could it be Congress?
“I want to be absolutely clear — we cannot, and we must not, balance the budget on the backs of our veterans. And as commander in chief, I won’t allow it.”
That sentiment was met with approval.
Or, when he spoke of institutions that have shirked obligations, was he referring to employers? Much to the chagrin of the Legion, there’s a higher unemployment rate among vets than the rest of the general population.
Too often, Legion leadership believes, vets aren’t receiving credit or civilian licensing for training they have received in the military.
The president addressed those concerns.
“I’m calling on every state to pass legislation that makes it easier for our veterans to get the credentials and the jobs for which they are so clearly qualified,” he said.
The president also promised to push Congress to pass legislation that would give private employers tax credits for hiring currently unemployed vets.
When talking about today’s armed forces — “America’s military is the best it’s ever been” — he seemed to be lowering expectations for what it can accomplish.
There was, for example, no talk of “victory” in Afghanistan. Instead, there was a much more sober — realistic? — suggestion of the future.
“Having ended our combat mission in Iraq and removed more than 100,000 trrops so far, we’ll remove the rest of our troops by the end of this year and end that war,” the president said. “Having put al-Qaida on the path to defeat, we won’t relent until the job is done. Having started to draw down our forces in Afghanistan we’ll bring home 33,000 troops by next summer and bring home more troops in the coming years.
“As our mission transitions from combat to support, Afghans will take responsibility for their own security, and the longest war in American history will come to a responsible end.”
It wasn’t, however, the sort of summation of wars that brings a flag-waving crowd to its feet.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.