On Nov. 6, the nation’s voters – including some 22 million U.S. veterans – will decide which man they want in the White House.
In exclusive interviews, the candidates explained their positions on the U.S. military’s Middle East footprint, veterans unemployment, the VA claims backlog, energy independence, illegal immigration and the next steps in economic recovery. The American Legion Magazine Managing Editor Matt Grills and Multimedia Editor Steve Brooks conducted the interviews.
U.S. forces have left Iraq and are leaving Afghanistan, but Iran remains a serious threat, Pakistan is a question mark, and the unrest in Syria and Egypt continues to draw world attention. How do you see the U.S. military’s role evolving in the Middle East?
OBAMA: Because of the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform – as well as our outstanding diplomatic corps, our intelligence teams – we were able to exit from Iraq in a way that gives them an opportunity to build a democracy for themselves. We expected after our exit that they would have ups and downs. Their political system is still in its infancy, and there are going to be tensions and stresses. But so far, because of the work our people did, they are quick to manage those tensions through politics. Their economy and oil production are starting to recover, and we continue to have a strong interaction with them.
What we’ve been able to do is reposition ourselves so that rather than, on a day-to-day basis, serve as their army and their police force, we now have a more appropriate relationship as partners with them in the region.
In Afghanistan, obviously we’re still in the midst, and the hardship that our troops continue to experience is significant. But their capacity to break the Taliban’s momentum and to build up Afghan forces – and now, to execute the transition – gives an opportunity also for the Afghan people to determine their own destiny.
Iran continues to engage in destabilizing activity in the region and has proven unwilling to convince the international community that they are not pursuing nuclear weapons, and as a consequence, our force profile in the region remains robust and will remain robust for the foreseeable future. Because we ended the war in Iraq, because we’re transitioning in Afghanistan and turning over more responsibility to the Afghans, that actually frees up our forces to be more flexible, more nimble and more effective in responding to … those forces that pose a direct threat to U.S. interests. And it allows us to build partnerships with other countries that end up being a force multiplier in the region.
ROMNEY: Well, surely in Afghanistan we want to make a smooth handoff of the security of the Afghan sovereignty to the Afghan security forces, and our troops will fulfill that role and should be completed by the end of 2014. But as we look forward, a decision to involve America’s military in kinetic activity should only be made when there is a substantial American interest at stake, when the mission is clearly defined and communicated to the American people, when we know how we’ll know when the mission has been completed, when we have full resources to provide for the protection and success of the mission, when we have determined how we will get out and what will happen after we’ve gone. My own view is that those circumstances will be rare and that the decision to involve our troops in a conflict setting is a decision that would have to meet a very high hurdle. So, within the Middle East or anywhere in the world, I would not want to use our military might unless all those conditions were met. That being said, I want to have a military that is so strong that no one would want to test it, that any nation considering untoward activity would have second thoughts given the capacity of America to react.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said that increasing our military presence in the Asia-Pacific region isn’t an attempt to raise tensions. Why is there a need for this increased presence?
ROMNEY: Our nation has long guaranteed freedom in the air, freedom on the seas and freedom in space. And there is potentially an interest on the part of some nations like China to question that freedom and to assert their sovereignty over extensive territory on the seas.
China, for instance, claims the South China Sea, and through the South China Sea nearly half of the world’s trade flows. It’s important for America to communicate to the nations of the Pacific that we are not abandoning our commitment to protecting the freedom of the seas, the freedom of the air, the freedom of space, and therefore to maintain a military presence in the region. I’m very concerned that while Secretary Panetta has that intent, he may not have the capacity to project that level of commitment because of the president’s plans to reduce our shipbuilding, reduce the purchase of aircraft and reduce the number of active-duty personnel. My own view is that we should increase shipbuilding from nine to 15 per year, add more aircraft, and increase the number of active-duty personnel by approximately 100,000.
OBAMA: The Asia-Pacific region is going to be the increasing center of economic activity in the world. (It) already accounts for about a third of our exports. A third of our imports come from that region. It’s growing faster than any region in the world, and we’ve always been a Pacific power. And so we want to make sure that even as we remain vigilant in preventing terrorism and protecting strategic interests in the Middle East, even as we continue our historic alliances with Europe to help maintain a peace and stability there, we can’t neglect a region that is going to be growing in importance for decades to come. And our goal in the Asia-Pacific region is to help ensure that as the region grows in economic activity and international power, that rules of the road are observed, that commercial sea lanes remain open, that our alliances with countries like Japan (and) South Korea are more robust than ever.
We’re putting our money where our mouth is. With the Iraq war over, with enormous budget pressures taking place, with the need for us to take care of our veterans, it’s going to be important for us to make sure that every one of our defense dollars counts. Working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, what we’ve been able to do is develop a strategy that guides our defense spending and our force structure’s procurement over decades to come, and within the budget envelope that we’re going to be working with, we are making sure that the Asia-Pacific region is not neglected, and that our Navy and our Air Force – which (are) our primary mechanisms to project force throughout a vast ocean – are preserved and enhanced.
The VA budget continues to increase each year, but the backlog of unresolved claims has nearly doubled in the past two years to nearly 1 million today. What can be done to reverse this trend, especially now that so many are discharging from the service, looking for benefits?
OBAMA: I’ve always said that one of my No. 1 priorities as commander in chief is making sure that our veterans are served as well as they’ve served us. My budgets have reflected those priorities. We’ve increased VA funding more than any president in the last 30 years, and we’re going to make sure we’ve got the resources to do the job.
The backlog has been a particular challenge, partly because we opened up access to disability claims for Agent Orange claimants. That was 250,000 to 300,000 individuals who hadn’t received the help that they’d needed, dating back to Vietnam. We have recognized and changed the presumptions around post-traumatic stress disorder because we now recognize the toll so many in the post-9/11 generation have experienced when it comes to post-traumatic stress disorder. Even though we have significantly increased the number of claims processors, even though we’re processing over a million more claims over the last three years than we’ve done in the past, that influx of new claims means the backlog’s still unacceptably high. So my instruction to every agency that touches on this issue is that we’ve got to bring that backlog down.
There are a couple of things we’re doing immediately. First of all, we’re taking 1,200 claims processors who we had surged, essentially, to deal with Agent Orange claims, and we’re now shifting them to work just on that backlog. These are proven folks who know the job and understand the task in front of them.
The second thing we’re doing is prioritizing claims to make sure that those (veterans) who have the most serious injuries and need help most immediately are on a fast track to get resolution of their claims.
The third thing we’re doing is doing a better job of working with DoD so that we are touching our vets immediately after they’ve left service, so that we don’t have a situation where the backlog builds up in part because people don’t know what their rights are right away, they lose track of paperwork, time passes, and it becomes that much harder to process their claims.
But ultimately, these are all short-term mechanisms to bring the backlog down. Long-term, what I’ve insisted on is that we’ve got to move to a digital system where, instead of people going through stacks of paper, you’ve got a system that’s computerized and that can significantly cut processing times.
ROMNEY: If a similar circumstance were to occur in the private sector, the customers would fire the company providing the service. The challenge with government is that it’s often not transparent and not responsible in paying attention to the needs of the people it serves. I would look to bring in people, some from the private sector, who know the importance of responding to the needs of the customer. In the private sector, you either meet the needs of the people who are your customers or you go out of business, and people in government who don’t meet the needs of our citizens should find a place of employment where they could be more successful.
Estimates point to nearly one military suicide and as many as 18 veteran suicides happening every day. Instances of post-traumatic stress disorder continue to increase. What steps do DoD and VA need to take to get a handle on the mental health problems members of the military and veterans are facing?
ROMNEY: I have not yet had a sufficient analysis prepared of the mental health capabilities of the VA system. But I do hear the same thing you describe, which is long waiting lines, which are unacceptable for our men and women who are coming home with severe mental health issues. The immediate conclusion one might reach would be to add more mental health professionals to the VA system, and that’s probably the right answer. In the interim, some may want to be given access to private care outside the system while they’re waiting for VA to staff up. But my experience with veterans is that, by and large, they want care in the veterans system, and if the veterans system can’t keep up, why, we should hire additional personnel so it can keep up.
OBAMA: A big chunk of this is making sure we have enough mental health professionals to provide services both to our vets and our men and women who are currently in uniform. We have significantly increased the number, but we still need to do more, and we’ve budgeted to do more. The second step is to make sure these mental health professionals are deployed in a timely way. In some cases that means, for example, having mental health professionals embedded and deployed while our men and women are on the battlefield. In some cases it means making sure that when they come home they are onsite to help. The third thing we have to do is make sure we’re educating the entire force on the signals that somebody is in trouble and needs help. Ultimately, it’s folks’ buddies and family members who are going to be our first line of defense when somebody needs help.
The fourth thing is taking the stigma out of getting help. This is something we’ve tried to emphasize consistently in VA and DoD, that when you have gone through what a lot of our folks have gone through – defending this country, and taking on wounds both seen and unseen – there’s no shame in making sure you’re getting professional help where you need it.
The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans is significantly higher than that of the general population. What can the federal government do to give these veterans opportunities to succeed in their careers, and can this generation of veterans stimulate an economic recovery?
OBAMA: Absolutely. The question is, what can we do to make sure we’re fully utilizing these assets and giving these incredible young people opportunities? Obviously step No. 1 is growing the economy. We’ve gone through the worst financial crisis and economic crisis since the Great Depression. The more we can do to strengthen the economy generally, the better off we’re going to be. That means we are investing in things like education and rebuilding our infrastructure and promoting American energy, and bringing down our deficits and debt in a balanced, thoughtful way, and making sure we have a tax code that rewards companies that are investing here in the United States. So there’s a whole big chunk of this that, if the economy is growing robustly, will be good for veterans and be good for everybody else.
More specifically for veterans, the Post-9/11 GI Bill is huge because we want to make sure that – just as my grandfather, when he came back from World War II, was able to get the best education available – our men and women in uniform, and their families, are able to access a great education. That’s been hugely successful, and the take-up rate’s been very high.
Step No. 2: We have successfully initiated tax credits to encourage employers to hire veterans.
A $5,600 tax credit for all veterans and a $9,600 tax credit for disabled veterans give that extra incentive for an employer to look at a veteran and say, “I want to give you a chance.”
A third important piece is making sure that we’re working with states and federal government agencies so that the credentials our veterans have are fully recognized. I was in Minnesota talking to a group of veterans, and we had a guy who was an Army medic in Iraq with two or three deployments, and he wanted to be a nurse. He’s coming back, and they’re saying he’s got to start with Nursing 101 when he’s been taking care of guys out in the field under unbelievable circumstances, and he wasn’t getting any credit for that. That’s an example for us to work with these licensing agencies or credentialing institutions to say, “If you’ve worked on a million-dollar piece of equipment, if you’ve operated under unimaginable circumstances in a war theater on logistics or looking after the wounded, you’ve got to get credit for that, so that you can right away enter the workforce.”
ROMNEY: We need experienced individuals in the workforce who can show up to work on time, work hard, and abide by conduct standards which are consistent with good discipline in the workplace. So veterans should be snapped up in this country. They’re not being snapped up for employment positions as they should be. One of the things I instituted as governor of my state – I’ll call it a bounty of some kind, a training award for people who’d been out of work for a year or more. This allowed an employer to receive a $2,000 payment to pay for the training of someone who’d been out of work for some period of time. An idea like that might well work for returning veterans, providing, if you will, a training payment to employers who hire returning veterans who have been out of the workforce for some time, such that the employer has an incentive to hire and train those who are coming back to the workforce.
You can only think things are adequate if the problem is solved, and the problem’s not been solved. So you look to say, “All right, if what we’re doing right now isn’t working, what can we do better?” The experience of working in the private sector is so different from government that sometimes it just makes me scratch my head that people in government don’t draw on more private-sector experience. For instance, if a company found that certain members of its customer group were being inadequately served, they’d fix that because they know if they don’t fix it, they’re going to go out of business. Government sees problems and doesn’t address them because in many cases they can’t be replaced – meaning the government agency, the government program, the government workers, are permanent and don’t worry so much about their customer as does an enterprise in the private sector. So if there’s some portion of our workforce that’s being chronically misserved, then government should experiment with different ideas to solve the problem and, by the way, eliminate the old programs that didn’t work.
With gas prices so high, what are the next steps to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign energy resources?
ROMNEY: This is not just an issue of reducing our dependence on foreign sources. It’s an opportunity to stimulate very high rates of growth in manufacturing and other sectors of the U.S. economy. We should be aggressively taking advantage of our domestic energy sources, and we should build the Keystone pipeline from Canada. The president has cut by one third the number of licenses and permits provided on federal lands, and by 50 percent the permits provided in offshore drilling. I would reverse that course and open up federal lands and offshore drilling opportunities for oil and gas. In addition, I would take advantage of our coal resources and prevent the administration from crushing the coal industry, as they have indicated their desire to do. We have a lot of energy in America that can be provided at reasonable cost in abundance, and it’s time for us to take advantage of that.
OBAMA: The good news is that U.S. oil production is higher than it’s been in eight years. Natural gas production is booming. We’re seeing a shift where we’re less dependent on foreign oil, actually. We’ve gone under 50 percent when it comes to our oil imports, and I think we can bring that down even further. The challenge we’ve got, though, is to make sure we keep that trend going. Some of it involves increased oil and gas production, so we’ve opened up areas offshore in the Gulf, in Alaska, that up until this point had not been open for exploration. But we’re going to have to do more than drill our way out of this problem. Part of the reason we’re seeing a reduction in our oil imports is because the industry’s gotten more efficient, we’ve doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars, and we’ve doubled the production of clean energy – solar wind, biodiesel. So we’ve got to have an all-of-the-above energy strategy where we’re increasing oil and gas production, but we’re also making sure that we are focused on the energy sources of the future.
Where does our nation now stand regarding illegal immigration, and what influence will the decision to stop deporting young undocumented immigrants affect that?
ROMNEY: One, we need to complete a fence, traditional and/or electronic. Two, we need to have an employment verification system in place so that employers can know whether they’re hiring someone who’s legal or not, and can be severely sanctioned if they’ve not checked to make that determination. Next, we should have a sufficient visa program so that people who want to come here and work temporarily – as they do today in agriculture but also in hospitality or other industries – are able to do so. We should also provide green cards for those who obtain advanced degrees, particularly in math and science and engineering, so that we keep those brains and innovators in America rather than having them leave America. I want to have a legal immigration system that is more transparent, so that people know the rules to come here legally and can determine their status without having to engage in the labyrinthine process that currently exists.
With regard to the children – those who have come here illegally and through no fault of their own now wonder what their status might be – I would like to put into place a permanent solution to their uncertainty rather than the stopgap measure that the president has instituted. I believe those who, for instance, serve in our military should remain as permanent residents of the United States. Those are the outlines of an immigration policy designed to make the program more transparent, to provide for ample and growing legal immigration by restricting the amount of illegal immigration.
OBAMA: I will work with anyone in Congress who’s willing to make progress on comprehensive immigration reform that addresses our economic and security needs, and upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.
While we haven’t had partners from across the aisle in Congress to move a bill forward, we’ve taken important steps, dedicating unprecedented resources to securing our borders and improving immigration enforcement so that it is smarter and more effective. The recent announcement from (the Department of Homeland Security) is the latest in a series of steps to make our nation’s immigration policy more fair, more efficient and more just – specifically for certain young people who are low enforcement priorities.
Right now, these young people study in our schools, play in our neighborhoods and pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents – sometimes even as infants – and yet they live under the threat of deportation to a country they may know nothing about, with a language they may not even speak.
It makes no sense to expel talented young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses and contribute to our country simply because of the actions of their parents. I have long supported the DREAM Act, which would ensure that these young people who want to fully contribute to our society and serve our country could legally reside here.
DHS has been using discretion to make choices about who it prosecutes, focusing on criminals who endanger our communities rather than students who earn their education – and today, deportation of criminals is over 80 percent. What we’ve learned is that an immigration policy that focuses on high-priority individuals works. It helps us focus our enforcement efforts where they’re most needed.
Can you describe, in a nutshell, how U.S. economic productivity can recover in the coming years?
OBAMA: The U.S. economy got a body blow just as I was coming into office in 2008. We have grown faster than some other countries – Europe being a prime example – but we’re not growing as fast as we need to. The keys to our long-term growth are going to (include) making sure we’ve got the best-educated workforce in the world. That’s why something like the Post-9/11 GI Bill is so important. That’s why the work we’ve done on expanding access to tuition tax credits that millions of middle-class families are already taking advantage of and saving thousands of dollars – that’s really important.
Making sure that we’re making stuff in America again, re-emphasizing cutting-edge manufacturing, is really important. We saved the auto industry, but there are industries across the board where we’ve got the best workers, the entrepreneurs, but unfortunately we still have a tax code that gives tax breaks to companies that are shipping jobs overseas instead of giving those tax breaks to companies investing here in the United States. That’s going to be critically important.
Making sure that we continue in basic research and science. That’s always been a cutting-edge part of our economy. And the Defense Department, through agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, helped invent the Internet. They helped invent GPS. Oftentimes, the investments we make initially for national security purposes end up being really important commercial ventures. But it all starts with our investment in basic research and science.
Finally, dealing with our debt and our deficit in a sensible way. I’ve reduced spending already by a trillion dollars last year. I think there’s more waste that we can root out. There are programs that don’t necessarily work. But if we’re going to be serious about reducing our deficit and our debt, we’ve got to combine some judicious cuts with asking folks like me, and those who have been incredibly blessed and can afford it, to do a little more in taxes. Let’s hold the 98 percent of Americans who make $250,000 a year or less harmless. Let’s make sure they don’t pay a dime more in federal income taxes. But the top 1, 2 percent – millionaires, billionaires – they can do a little bit more. By doing that, it allows us to bring down our deficit, but also keep the faith with our troops, maintain our strong defense, and make sure that we’re making investments in things like education and financing the veterans services that are so vital to those who consistently stepped up and looked after us.
ROMNEY: You’re going to see, with the right direction in this country, a resurgence of America’s economy, and that’s based on five key steps. No. 1, taking advantage of our energy resources. No. 2, opening up trade with other nations that will play by the rules, and cracking down on China or other nations that don’t play by the rules. No. 3, restraining government spending. You can’t keep spending every year massively more than we take in. No. 4, training our workforce and providing better schools for our kids. And No. 5, restoring economic freedom, and by that I mean having tax rates that are competitive with those around the world, having regulations that are updated and modern, having regulators who see their job as encouraging enterprise rather than stifling it, reducing the cost of health care, and finally, having labor policies that are fair and appropriate for America’s workers. You do those five things and you’ll see America’s economy come roaring back, and those are the things I’ll do.
I am fully committed to strengthening America through our values, through a growing economy, and through a military that’s second to none. I will not cut the military budget. I will instead expand our essential weapons programs and our active-duty personnel. I do these things not so that we have to fight wars, but so that we can prevent wars. I believe that America’s veterans understand the importance of measures that keep America strong militarily, economically, and in our homes and values, and those measures form the centerpiece of my campaign.