Critic's Notebook: Obama Gets Grilled on Syria, Veterans' Issues and Colin Kaepernick at CNN Town Hall

Courtesy of CNN

The president fielded questions about Syria, the problems at the VA and the role of women in combat in a deadly serious discussion with soldiers, veterans and their famiilies.

He may have less than four months remaining as president, but Barack Obama is still the nation's commander in chief. The nation was reminded of that Wednesday night by America's Military and Commander in Chief, a CNN Town Hall event hosted by Jake Tapper and conducted at Virginia's Fort Lee military base. The event was a sobering reminder that the upcoming election, rather than being merely entertaining, is also a matter of life and death.

In stark contrast to the political circus that has dominated the country's attention for over a year, this was a serious affair. There were no mentions of penis size, Rosie O'Donnell, beauty pageants or e-mails. And in contrast to his predecessor in the office, Obama didn't feel the need to show up wearing a flight suit.

The evening began with a stirring rendition of the National Anthem, sung by a female staff sergeant who could definitely have a show business career if she ever tires of the military.

The thoughtful questions posed by military members, veterans and their families prompted equally reflective responses from the president. Asked if he ever second-guessed his military decisions, Obama said, "There hasn't been a week that's gone by that I haven't reexamined our options," adding that he routinely consults with critics of his policies. (It's somehow hard to imagine Trump taking a similar approach.)

Addressing the denunciations of his actions, or lack thereof, regarding the civil war in Syria, Obama took a historical approach, reminding the audience that many great nations have been brought down by "overextending" themselves. "Just sending in more troops is not going to be an answer," he declared.

The VA's horrific inefficiencies were brought up by the widow of a veteran who had waited more than a year for a colonoscopy and wound up dying of cancer. Tearfully clutching the flag that had draped his coffin, she asked Obama when things were going to change.

"We have actually made progress," Obama replied, reminding her that the VA's problems had "built up over decades." But he admitted that improvements would be slow, despite his having "fired a whole bunch of people who were in charge of those facilities" and increased the VA budget by 85% since he took office.

A soldier who works in a military mortuary asked Obama what he thought about the spate of NFL players refusing to stand during the National Anthem.

"Part of what makes this country great is that we respect people's rights to have a different opinion," Obama told him, adding, "I want them [the players] to listen to the pain that they may cause to someone who has lost a husband, wife or child in combat."

The Gold Star mother of a soldier killed in Iraq asked Obama why he refused to use the term "radical Islamic terrorist."

"This is an issue that's been sort of manufactured," he answered. Referring to the terrorists, he said, "We don't want to validate their claims that they're fighting for Islam, because they don't."

Seeing an opening, Tapper stepped in.

"You were clearly referring to Donald Trump just then?" he asked Obama.

"No, I wasn't," Obama replied unconvincingly, striving to make a political point without seeming overtly political. "There have been a number of public figures from whom you start hearing commentary that is dangerous."

The widow of a soldier who had suffered from PTSD and committed suicide asked Obama how we can better encourage soldiers and veterans who need help to get it. Obama visibly winced when she reminded him that more than twenty veterans commit suicide every day.

"There's no weakness in asking for help," he replied, pointing out that he had instructed his military commanders to destigmatize mental health issues and also increased funding for mental health services. "We're putting money behind this," he declared.  

Obama made an effort to be playful with some of the questioners. When a female Marine asked him about recent studies proving that mixed-gender combat units perform noticeably worse, Obama told her that women should get the jobs they deserve, and that "we have gained a lot of talent" as a result. "I'm pretty sure you're in better shape than I am," he added, garnering one of the evening's few laughs.

And when a muscular Marine who had lost both legs to an IED blast asked him what can be done to remove the burden from service members who have served multiple tours of duty, and how to get more citizens to serve, Obama took the opportunity to get personal with the questioner who he had visited several times in the hospital.

"Every time I see him his arms are just a little bit bigger," he told the crowd. "Those are some guns, man!"

The final question of the evening came from a retired colonel, who asked Obama what advice he would give to Malia and Sasha if they expressed an interest in serving in the military.

"I would say go for it," the president responded, as he certainly had to. But you got the feeling that immediately afterwards he was rushing back to the White House to tell them, "Don't get any ideas!"


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