By Aamer Madhani, USA Today
WASHINGTON â€“ For months, President Obama and his surrogates have been spotlighting his efforts on behalf of military veterans â€” a group they think potentially could play an important role in determining who wins several battleground states in November.
On the stump, Obama has noted his efforts to expand health care benefits for veterans and trumpeted the fact that the Department of Veterans Affairs has seen its budget increase each year of his presidency.
In his two public addresses on Memorial Day, the president emphasized his decision to end the Iraq War and wind down the decade-old conflict in Afghanistan.
On Friday, Obama will travel to Minneapolis to call on Congress to pass legislation that would create a Veterans Job Corps to help Afghanistan and Iraq vets get jobs in police work, firefighting and other fields.
Yet Obama finds himself lagging behind GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney 58%-34% among veterans, according to a Gallup daily tracking poll released this week.
As a bloc that is made up largely of older voters, veterans have traditionally voted Republican. But Obama won vets under age 60 in 2008, something even Vietnam veteran John Kerry was unable to do in 2004. However, Obama trails Romney 59%-32% among the under-60 veterans, according to the poll.
"It's a totally different situation now," said Merle Black, a professor of politics and government at Emory University in Atlanta. "The Bush administration was very unpopular. â€¦ Veterans are evaluating the president after three years in office. He's not an unknown."
The president's campaign has turned to Beau Biden, the son of Vice President Biden and an Iraq War veteran, to help make the president's pitch for re-election to veterans. Obama campaign aides have also attempted to paint Romney as hostile to veterans' needs, noting that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney cut veterans' services, and that he supports a House Republican budget that would trim funding for vets' programs by $11 billion.
"It really seems like Romney just doesn't care about the veterans community," Rob Diamond, the Obama campaign's veterans and military families outreach coordinator, told reporters earlier this month.
The Romney campaign has pushed back, noting that vets' unemployment hovers around 9.2%, more than a full point above the national rate, and that the VA has a backlog of 870,000 disability claims. "I believe that (veterans) are not being well-served today because of some of the policies in place under the Obama administration," said Anthony Principi, a former secretary of Veterans Affairs in the George W. Bush administration and a Romney supporter.
The Obama administration also faces criticism from some allies, including the president's former Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe and Kennedy family scion Bobby Shriver, for being slow to stem the growing numbers of homeless veterans. Tribe is among a group of lawyers suing the administration in an attempt to push the VA to refurbish and reopen a 400-acre shuttered shelter and rehab property in west Los Angeles.
"On balance, he's done a lot of good things for vets and vets should vote for him," Shriver, who still supports Obama, said in an interview. "But this is a harsh problem. It needs to be fixed, and he can fix it."