SPRINGFIELD, Va. -- Mitt Romney told an audience of veterans in Northern Virginia on Thursday that President Obama has not done enough to help U.S. soldiers returning from conflicts abroad, and argued that his Democratic rival bears full responsibility for failing to halt automatic defense cuts that are slated to take effect early next year.
Struggling to recover after the disclosure of derisive comments he made at a private fundraiser in which he seemed to discount 47% of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes, Romney is heightening his focus on foreign policy and military affairs, a message well tailored to Virginia’s huge community of veterans. (He will campaign Friday at Valley Forge Military College in Pennsylvania.)
At an American Legion hall in Springfield, Romney said Obama should have found a way to halt the automatic cuts in defense and domestic spending, known as sequesters, which will take effect next year unless Congress can find a better way to whittle down the deficit.
PHOTOS: Mitt Romney on the campaign trail
Democrats and Republicans in Congress, including Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan, agreed to the cuts as part of a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling last summer.
Both Obama and his Defense secretary, Leon Panetta, oppose the cuts, but Romney faulted them for even contemplating such an agreement — calling it a “kind of a gun-to- your-head opportunity” that came into being because “Congress couldn’t get the job done properly, and the president couldn’t lead them.”
He noted that Virginia’s economy is hinged to the defense industry and said the cuts could lead to a loss of 136,000 jobs in Virginia. “It is still a troubled and dangerous world, and the idea of cutting our military commitment by a trillion dollars over this decade is unthinkable,” he said.
On Thursday, Romney sought to highlight unemployment among younger veterans and the psychological problems they face returning home from war. He called the current backlog of claims in the veterans system unacceptable.
“We have huge numbers of our men and women returning from conflict that are seeking counseling, psychological counseling and can’t find that counseling within our system —and, of course, record numbers of suicides. This is a crisis,” Romney said.
Given the threats around the world and the needs of veterans, “how in the world, as commander in chief, you could stand by as we shrink our military commitment financially is something that I don’t understand, and I will reverse it,” he said.
PHOTOS: Mitt Romney’s campaign gaffes
Last week, Republicans in Congress blocked the president’s proposal for a Veterans Job Corps that would have spent $1 billion over five years hiring service members to work on federal public lands projects. Members of the military who have served since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, faced an unemployment rate of 10.9% in August — which was higher than the national rate of 8.1%. But Senate Republicans balked at the cost of the bill.
Romney has called for massive budget cuts to reduce the deficit, but he has not specified what specific cuts he would propose in the defense budget — or most other areas. “I’m sure there’s opportunity to economize and do a better job with the funds we have,” he said. “I expect to go after the Department of Defense and look in every single corner and see if we can’t do things in a more efficient way.”
But he said he would take the “resources we save and use them to make sure we care for our veterans in the way they deserve to be cared for.”
Keying off the lack of specificity in Romney’s budget-cutting plans, Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith countered that his proposals “could result in deep cuts to the VA.”
“Because of his refusal to lead his party and demand that congressional Republicans, including his running mate, drop their opposition to asking for a penny more from millionaires and billionaires, he’s stood in the way of preventing devastating automatic defense cuts,” Smith said, referring to the deadlock over sequestration. “These policies would be disastrous for America’s military, military families and veterans, and we can’t afford them.”
PHOTOS: Paul Ryan's past
Follow Politics Now on Twitter and Facebook