Obama brings the swagger on national security after Romney ducks

Did you see President Obama's speech at Fort Bliss last Friday? You probably didn't, did you?

But you remember Romney's convention speech last week, right? Romney, by most accounts, bombed -- at least when it comes to national security. The man who would be commander-in-chief failed to mention the troops at all, did not utter the word "Afghanistan," and became the first GOP candidate in more than 50 years not to mention war of any kind.

Obama clearly smelled blood in the water. The president made the military, the war in Afghanistan, and national security the focus of his Friday event, his weekly Saturday radio address, and a nice chunk of an Ohio campaign stop on Monday.

On Friday, the president told troops that two years ago he pledged the United States would be out of Iraq, adding, "I meant what I said." Then, he added, he said the U.S. had more to do fighting al-Qaida, and repeated, "I meant what I said."

So, we have a theme. Obama also defended U.S. power under his leadership, pledged to end the war in Afghanistan "responsibly," shrink the budget and give troops time to be with their families and train again, and to support veterans with jobs programs.

"If you hear anyone trying to say that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, don't you believe it," Obama thundered. "Around the world, there's a new attitude toward America, new confidence in our leadership. When people are asked, which country do you admire most, one nation always comes out on top: the United States of America."

If that speech was any prelude of what's to come in Charlotte at the Democratic National Convention, it could be a very bad week for Republicans. The Obama campaign's Marie Harf, a former CIA spokeswoman who worked there under now-Pentagon press secretary George Little -- has flooded reporter inboxes since Thursday with every article and column ripping Romney's omission of the military they can find -- including from stalwart conservatives like George Will.

Other former national security officials-turned-campaigners are making their case. Former Pentagon official Colin Kahl, co-chair of the Obama campaign's national security team, told Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin that national security will feature heavily in Charlotte. He called it "bizarre" Romney left Afghanistan out of his bid for the White House. "He didn't even mention the war in Afghanistan much less let the American people know what he wants to do about it."

Surely few people saw the Ft. Bliss performance. It was late on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day weekend, when the Pentagon parking lot was 4/5 empty and when nobody but your E-Ringer still was paying attention. But it was likely the president's best speech to a gathering of troops during his presidency.

The E-Ring doesn't say that lightly. Obama has never looked comfortable or -- to borrow an adjective from Romney critics -- authentic when speaking to the troops. He's never matched George W. Bush's uber-natural stage-handling and troop-embracing persona. Even former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' stilted, low-talking troop talks had true emotion behind them. Gates was a quiet crier, though, and not exactly Patton. So, for this commander-in-chief, the timing could not have been better to suddenly look and sound like one.

By fortune of the calendar, Obama was officially marking the two-year anniversary of the end of combat operations in Iraq. But let's be honest, neither one of those things are a thing. Nobody celebrates two-year anniversaries. And ending "combat operations" was the Pentagon's way of ending the war without really ending the war for another year and a half, last December. (Remember Operation Iraqi Freedom? Of course you do. Remember Operation New Dawn? Of course not.)

Obama has come a long way since his first awkward address to troops in 2009. This one sounded more like vintage Hyde Park, 2008.

"So, here's my pledge to you," Obama said. "In a world of serious threats, I will never hesitate to use force to defend the United States of America or our interests. At the same time, I will only send you into harm's way when it is absolutely necessary. And when we do, we will give you the equipment and the clear mission and the smart strategy and the support back home that you need to get the job done. We owe you that."

He carried the tone into Monday on a proper campaign stop:

Last week, did you notice Governor Romney did not say a word about our troops who are in harm's way over there? And because of my plan, 33,000 of them will have come home by the end of this month.
 
He said ending the war in Iraq was "tragic." I think it was the right thing to do. I said we'd end that war -- and we did. I said we'd go after al Qaeda -- we did. I said we'd take out bin Laden -- we did. 
 
Our troops are out of Iraq. We're bringing them home from Afghanistan. And as long as I'm Commander-in-Chief, we will serve our veterans as well as they've served us, because nobody who fights for this country should have to fight for a job or a roof over their heads when they come home. That's why I'm running for a second term.
 
So we've got some big choices we've got to make.
 
For junkies of both politics and national security -- we know you're out there -- this could be your week. Democrats are going to hammer Republican message, hoping to leave a lasting impression for voters through Election Day.

The good news for Romney is there are still two months and three presidential debates left for the GOP candidate to making his case for being the next commander-in-chief. In Afghanistan, two months is a fraction of one fighting season. In politics, it's eons.

DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley