His moves to slim down the armed forces, move away from traditional military might and overhaul social policies prohibiting the service of minority groups have proven divisive in the ranks. His critics have accused him of trading a strong security posture for political points, and for allowing the rise of terrorists like the Islamic State group whom the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were supposed to silence.
But Obama’s supporters define him as the Nobel Peace Prize winner who ordered the elimination of Osama bin Laden and refocused military strategy while wrestling with an uncooperative Congress and unprecedented budget restrictions. They insist the military is more nimble now, and more prepared to deal with unconventional warfare against non-traditional threats across the globe.
More than half of troops surveyed in the latest Military Times/Institute for Veterans and Military Families poll said they have an unfavorable opinion of Obama and his two-terms leading the military. About 36 percent said they approve of his job as commander in chief.
Their complaints include the president’s decision to decrease military personnel (71 percent think it should be higher), his moves to withdraw combat troops from Iraq (59 percent say it made America less safe) and his lack of focus on the biggest dangers facing America (64 percent say China represents a significant threat to the U.S.)
But more than two-thirds support Obama's mantra that securing America means building strong alliances with foreign powers. And more than 60 percent think his use of drones and special forces teams for precision strikes — instead of large-scale military operations — has helped U.S. national security.
That’s a conflicted response to a president who entered the White House vowing to end U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan but instead leaves as the first American president to oversee two full terms with combat troops deployed to hostile zones.
In a departure memo released Jan. 5, Defense Secretary Ash Carter defended Obama’s “record of progress” with the military by praising the White House moves as creating “a smaller yet more technologically advanced and capable military that is ready for the threats of today and the challenges of tomorrow.”
“America is today the world’s foremost leader, partner, and underwriter of stability and security in every region across the globe, as we have been since the end of World War II,” Carter wrote. “But even as we continue to fulfill this enduring role, it’s also evident that we’re entering a new strategic era … and it requires new ways of thinking and new ways of acting.”
The White House did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with Obama to discuss his defense moves and the military legacy he’ll leave behind.
In a farewell speech during a military honor review on Jan. 4, Obama said he saw his top priority overseeing America’s military as balancing the need to use force with the need to honor the armed forces.
“You committed yourself to a life of service and of sacrifice,” he said. “And I, in turn, made a promise to you … that I would only send you into harm's way when it is absolutely necessary, with the strategy, the well-defined goals, with the equipment and the support that you needed to get the job done. Because that’s what you rightfully expect and that is what you rightfully deserve.”
Still, many troops see Obama less as a wartime commander in chief and more as a politician managing Pentagon affairs. Through his presidency Obama has repeatedly promised to keep the military “the strongest fighting force the world has ever known” but many troops question his stewardship of the institution, particularly when it comes to the defense budget.
'IT'S THE PRESIDENT'S FAULT'
“There’s no question this era will go down as the third ‘hollow’ army, and it’s the president’s fault,” said James Jay Carafano, deputy director of international studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “For all his promises, the operations tempo hasn’t gone down as much as he hoped, and he has invested little in the military.”
Troops responding to the Military Times/IVMF poll saw years of defense budget fights as the largest blemish on Obama’s presidency. Two-thirds said spending caps enacted in 2011 have had a very negative effect on military morale, and another 28 percent said it was harmful to a lesser extent. Fewer than two percent saw the budget caps as a positive for the military.
Conservatives have attacked Obama for the lower defense budgets for years, arguing that his insistence on pairing military spending with non-defense spending has crippled Pentagon efforts to modernize and recapitalize.
The caps — known as sequestration — have been blamed for shortfalls in parts and repairs, cuts in training time and a gradual drawdown in military manpower. They’ve also contributed to a host of compensation trims, as Pentagon leaders have held down pay increases and stipend raises in recent years to help offset funding reductions in other areas.
Obama has shouldered much of the blame for sequestration, even with lawmakers approving the plan and failing to draft a repeal. In recent years, administration officials have tried to push back on the narrative that the president is responsible for that host of budget fights that have consumed Washington and, by extension, the military.
“The Defense Department has faced this new strategic era while dealing with significant impediments presented by Congress, including budget uncertainty, the first government shutdown in a generation, the repeated denial of reform proposals to make the defense enterprise more efficient, and efforts to micromanage the organization of the department,” Carter said in his memo.
“Despite this, the Department has been able to manage its strategic priorities during eight consecutive years that began with continuing resolutions, albeit at increasing levels of programmatic risk.”
Still, independent military advocates have said lower-than-anticipated defense budgets put enormous strain on military families in recent years. A November Military Times/IVMF poll, conducted in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump's election victory, showed that more than 60 percent of active-duty service members felt improving troops’ pay and benefits should be a top priority of the incoming administration.
Obama has pushed back on the idea that tighter budgets have ruined the services, one of Trump's favorite talking points. Last week, Obama said the military remains “the most capable fighting force on the face of the Earth” despite financial challenges.
“Our Army, tested by years of combat, is the best-trained and best-equipped land force on the planet,” he said. “Our Navy is the largest and most lethal in the world, on track to surpass 300 ships. Our Air Force, with its precision and reach, is unmatched. Our Marine Corps is the world’s only truly expeditionary force. Our Coast Guard is the finest in the world.”
The White House in recent years has helped broker a pair of short-term deals to get around the budget caps, but failed to find a permanent solution with Republican leaders. Trump has promised to do just that, but will likely face the same political obstacles.
Carafano said he is hopeful that a change in administrations will produce different results.
“We don’t have a just-in-time industrial base anymore, so any changes in defense spending will be gradual,” he said. “But these problems are reversible. We just have to have a president who is interested.”
'A RELUCTANT WARRIOR'
Those budget concerns were at the core of Trump’s attacks on Obama on the campaign trail, with accusations that the president was uninterested in “defending” America and too quick to prefer diplomacy over military might.
In speech before troops in Florida in December, Obama said that he never shied away from military intervention, but instead took a responsible, cautious approach to those grave decisions.
“I believe that we must never hesitate to act when necessary, including unilaterally when necessary, against any imminent threats to our people,” he said. “But I have also insisted that it is unwise and unsustainable to ask our military to build nations on the other side of the world, or resolve their internal conflicts.”
Obama will leave office with American military units still in the Middle East and Afghanistan, but overseeing training and assistance missions, not direct combat. He has received criticism both for failing to zero-out those deployments and moving too fast to pull down the numbers before those regions were fully secure.
“He’s a reluctant warrior,” said said Phil Carter, director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the progressive Center for a New American Security. “He has struggled to end the wars overseas and fulfill those promises, and he never managed to do so.”
Troops polled appear divided on whether Obama ever achieved the proper balance on those deployed force levels. Nearly 60 percent of poll respondents said the drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq made America less safe. A slightly smaller 55 percent said moves to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan has hurt this country’s national security.
While half of troops surveyed see the reduced emphasis on large-scale overseas missions as harmful to military readiness, 45 percent see the shift to training and advising missions as a positive for the armed forces.
For his part, Obama appears to have no such qualms about the approach.
“Instead of pushing all of the burden onto American ground troops, instead of trying to mount invasions wherever terrorists appear, we’ve built a network of partners,” Obama said in his speech, calling his decisions “a smart strategy that can be sustained.”
But Trump and Republican lawmakers have ridiculed the president’s foreign policy as scattered, quick to find any option other than a possible fight. They point to what they see as an overly trusting agreement with Iranian hard-liners over nuclear weapons and indecisive, unfulfilled threats against Syrian President Bashar Assad for attacks on his own people.
And a host of Obama’s own former defense officials have helped pile on that narrative.
In his memoir, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates blasted Obama as a leader “who doesn’t believe in his own strategy” and said his plans in Iraq and Afghanistan were “all about getting out.” He also accused Obama of distrusting senior military leaders, and treating them as potential adversaries.
Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command under Obama and Trump’s nominee to serve as defense secretary, last fall called Obama’s anti-ISIS strategy “unguided by a sustained policy or sound strategy, replete with half-measures.”
While overseeing U.S. operations in Afghanistan in 2010, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal was effectively fired by Obama after reports of their fights over military strategy were made public. In 2014, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, today a top adviser to Trump, was dismissed as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency over his criticism of Obama’s soft approach to Islamic terrorism.
The president's conflict with military leaders came even as First Lady Michelle Obama launched the White House Joining Forces initiative, designed to better educate the public on the service and sacrifice of military personnel and their families.
'WE CAN NO LONGER AFFORD TO ALLOW BARRIERS'
The biggest impact of Obama’s tenure may be felt by those serving in the ranks, and how dramatically that population has changed in recent years. Since 2009, White House-led changes have allowed gay troops to serve openly for the first time, women to serve in combat posts, same-sex couples to receive military benefits, and transgender service members to announce their presence in the ranks.
“Inertia is the most powerful force in the Defense Department,” said Phil Carter, the analyst, who served as an Army adviser in Iraq in 2005-2006. “Some of these changes may have happened without [Obama], but he gets credit for forcing them quicker than they wanted.”
It’s unclear if the departing president will get credit or blame. About 30 percent of troops surveyed in the latest poll said the Pentagon's move to open all combat jobs to women has hurt military readiness, versus 15 percent who see it as a positive.
The new open-service policy for transgender troops is less popular, with 41 percent of those surveyed calling it harmful and only 12 percent calling it helpful.
But both of those leave the majority of troops in the middle, saying the changes have had no real effect on unit effectiveness.
And the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law was seen by many in the military community as a significant problem when it was finalized in 2010, but now is seen as no big deal to most troops. Only 17 percent of troops surveyed by Military Times and IVMF saw openly gay troops as a negative for military readiness, versus 24 percent who believe it has improved the force and 58 percent who say little changed after the repeal was finalized.
Obama and a host of defense officials have defended the changes as a way to “strengthen the military” without compromising military readiness.
“As an all-volunteer force, the Defense Department must be able to draw from 100 percent of America’s population, focusing purely on a person’s willingness and ability to serve our country,” Ash Carter wrote in his exit memo.
“We can no longer afford to allow barriers unrelated to a person’s qualifications to prevent us from recruiting and retaining those who can best accomplish the mission.”
Phil Carter said that, long-term, those policies could be among the most significant military moves of Obama’s presidency. Advocates have called them life-altering for their members.
Following the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, officials from the Human Rights Campaign lauded the moves as long-overdue permission for “brave men and women currently serving to have the freedom to come out and be honest with their comrades about who they are and who they love.”
Officials from the Service Women’s Action Network called the combat roles expansion “a new era for American women to serve the nation with valor and courage on the battlefield.”
STRONG SUPPORT AMONG WOMEN, MINORITIES
Among troops in the poll, Obama was more popular with officers (44 percent favorable rating) than enlisted troops (35 percent favorable) and more popular among Navy personnel (43 percent favorable) than those in any other service. In each of those groups, the percentage of troops who held a negative view of his presidency still outweighed his supporters.
That has been a recurring theme for Obama among the military. Past reader polls by Military Times (which unlike the IVMF-partnered polls were not conducted in a scientific manner) have consistently shown him with higher unfavorable numbers than positive marks.
Right after taking office in 2009, 40 percent of readers said they had an unfavorable view of him, with 35 percent having a favorable opinion. His favorable marks dropped down in similar reader polls in following years, and his unfavorables grew.
Still, the outgoing president does appear to be admired by some segments of the military. More than 60 percent of women have a favorable view of him, in contrast with 36 percent who disliked his presidency.
Roughly 57 percent of minorities in the military approve of the work done by the country’s first black president. And almost 90 percent of troops who voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (about 29 percent of service members in the poll say they did) have a favorable opinion of the last eight years of White House policies.
Now, all of those them will answer to a new commander in chief.
Nearly 49 percent of troops who voted in the last election said they cast a ballot for Trump, and he enters this Oval Office with 46 percent of active-duty service members saying they have a favorable view of him and 37 percent saying they have an unfavorable view.
In his exit memo, Ash Carter said warned that the incoming administration will face many of the same challenges that Obama faced, albeit with a better plan of attack from the outgoing president.
“While the next administration will continue to be challenged by an evolving security environment, I am confident that our military is up to the task of protecting our nation in the years ahead,” he wrote.
Between Dec. 16 and 21, Military Times and Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families conducted a voluntary, confidential online survey of U.S. service members. The questions focused on President Barack Obama’s time in the White House and the nation's current political climate.
The survey received 1,664 responses from active-duty troops. A standard methodology was used by IVMF analysts to estimate the weights for each individual observation of the survey sample. The margin of error for questions on Obama’s popularity is 2 percent. Other questions have slightly higher margins of error.
The survey audience was 87 percent male and 13 percent female, and had a mean age of 30 years old. The respondents identified themselves as 73 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic, 11 percent African American, 4 percent Asian and 9 percent other ethnicities. Respondents were able to select more than one race.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
George Altman covers military transition issues, education and post-separation employment and entrepreneurship for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.