AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This week, President Obama and Mitt Romney are addressing the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The president spoke today; Romney, tomorrow. The VFW is the oldest and largest veterans group. About 5,000 members were on hand today in Reno, Nevada. The president's speech was different from his address the last time he spoke to this gathering, in 2009. Then, his focus was on the two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today, he was cheered when he spoke of the end of combat operations in Iraq, and when he said this:
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Since I took office, we've worked with our allies and our partners to take out more top al-Qaida leaders than any time since 9/11. And thanks to the courage and the skill of our forces, Osama bin Laden will never threaten America again, and al-Qaida is on the road to defeat.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
CORNISH: NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea is at the convention hall in Reno, and he joins us now. And Don, to start, President Obama began his remarks with the subject on everyone's mind - the massacre in Colorado. What did he say?
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Well, we all knew he'd mention it. It was just a question of - you know, when and how. And he did so right at the top, when he listed four victims of the shooting; four of the 12, who were either veterans or active military. He read their names and their rank - 29-year-old Air Force veteran Jesse Childress; 27-year-old Petty Officer Third Class John Larimer; 32-year-old Rebecca Wingo, a mother of two and a Navy veteran [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Wingo was an Air Force veteran]; and 26-year-old Navy veteran Jonathan Blunk, who was from this town - Reno, Nevada.
OBAMA: These young patriots were willing to serve in faraway lands, yet they were taken from us here at home. And yesterday, I conveyed to their families a message on behalf of all Americans: We honor your loved ones. We salute their service.
GONYEA: And it was really a way to deliver his first big speech since last week's tragedy - a speech on another topic - but to acknowledge it in a way that the veterans here clearly appreciated.
CORNISH: Moving on from that topic, what was the main thrust of President Obama's speech?
GONYEA: Basically, it was that he has a record, a positive record that they can judge him on when it comes to veterans' issues - combat troops home from Iraq, Afghanistan winding down - both promises kept, he said. Applause - when he said those things - was polite, though. There was clearly, you know, a divided opinion here about the U.S. pulling out of Iraq, as this audience is divided about this president. But there was big applause, and even cheers, when he focused on veterans' health care; and when he said veterans' benefits are protected from the budget battles in Washington, which could later this year bring those automatic cuts to the defense budget. So that made people very happy here.
CORNISH: Of course, President Obama speaking as commander in chief when he speaks to a veterans group, but he's also a candidate. So what are veterans saying is important to them, in this election year?
GONYEA: Well, no surprise at all. They're just like, you know, the rest of the American public. It's such a huge, diverse group - veterans are. And, you know, person after person after person that I talked to - before and after the speech - would tell me hey, it's the economy. That's what everybody mentions. And, you know, the president certainly talked about that; and about how Congress needs to take steps to help more businesses hire more veterans, and help veterans use their military experience to get quicker certification for skilled civilian jobs that he says they could do, but there are things blocking them from getting them.
Of course, Mitt Romney comes here tomorrow. He is expected to lay out his vision of American military strength, and to talk a great deal about veteran programs - veterans programs, certainly. But he will talk about the economy.
CORNISH: NPR's Don Gonyea in Reno, thanks so much.
GONYEA: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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