President Obama used the occasion of 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to open up to the troops Friday in a way he rarely does with other audiences on a range of topics -- telling them that they were his inspiration in times of crisis.
In response to questions from service members, Obama -- sometimes criticized as an aloof know-it-all -- was relaxed and conversational but at times emotional as he sought to convey how he felt about his responsibilities as their commander-in-chief.
"On 9/11, I thought it was particularly appropriate for me to be able to address you directly and to say thank you on behalf of the American people. I don't have a greater honor than serving as your commander in chief," Obama said in what was billed by the Pentagon as a "World Wide Troop Talk" by video and before an audience of about 250 at Fort Meade, Maryland.
Obama said he falls back on faith and family in times of stress to get past his own inevitable mistakes and those of his staff but "part of it is seeing all the sacrifices that all of you make."
"When I go to Walter Reed (Army Medical Center) and I visit wounded troops, then I say to myself ‘Look, I've got to be serious about what I do and I can't be worked up about what poll numbers or cable TV says.'"
In a session that lasted more than an hour, Obama spoke at length about the strategy to attack militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the raid that killed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden raid, and recent Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. He also had a warning for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who will visit the White House later this month.
Obama noted the allegations that China has been responsible for numerous cyber-attacks on the U.S. He said he will convey to Xi that they must work together on cyber security or risk a cyber-war "which I guarantee you we'll win if we have to."
In response to a question from Afghanistan from Army Sgt. Aaron Giese, of the 3rd Infantry Division, Obama said there was "good news" and "bad news" on Russia's latest moves to send military advisers and equipment to bolster the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The good news was that Russian President Vladimir Putin was coming to the realization that ISIS had to be defeated but the bad news was that Putin continued to believe that Assad could be a partner in an eventual political settlement in Syria, the president said.
Obama said he repeatedly tried to tell Putin that he was making a mistake "but he did not take my warnings." He said, "You can't continue to double down on a strategy that is doomed to failure. That's where the Russians are going to have to get a little smarter."
The president offered little immediate hope of working together with Russia to find a peaceful solution in Syria. "This is going to be a long discussion," he said.
Obama said he expected criticism as part of the job, and wasn't overly concerned about politicians from both sides of the aisle "talking smack" about him, as one questioner put it.
He cited the May 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed bin Laden. "When I made the order to go in and get bin Laden in that house in Pakistan, it was probably a 50-50 proposition that that was in fact him and the risks obviously were enormous," he said.
"If I had been making that decision based on wanting to avoid risk and not having somebody talk smack about me, then that might not have been a decision that I would have been prepared to make," he said.
Air Force Maj. Jennifer Moore, a C-17 pilot at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, wanted to know from Obama how to balance life and work. She laughingly held up a photo of her husband, also a C-17 pilot, and her two kids to show what she meant.
Obama joked at first. "For me, I just do what Michelle tells me and it seems to work out," he said, referring First Lady Michelle Obama.
It came down to "structure and rules" in raising daughters Sasha and Malia and getting across the point that, "I'm your parent, I'm not your best friend," Obama said.
That included making sure that they eat their vegetables even if it means saying "we're going to watch you swallow," he said.
He also referenced his daughters in responding to a question on what he was doing on Sept. 11, 2001, during the terror attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
At the time, Sasha was an infant and it was Malia's first day in kindergarten, Obama said. He was an Illinois state senator at the time and was driving on Lake Shore Drive to a hearing in downtown Chicago.
He heard the first reports on the radio that the World Trade Center had been hit and the initial speculation that it may have been an accident. "It wasn't until I got downtown to where the hearing was taking place that I realized it was much more serious," he said.
The building where the hearing was to take place was evacuated. Obama recalled standing on the street with "thousands of people and people didn't know what to think. We didn't know if it was a one-off" or if there would be more attacks.
At home later, Obama said, "I have very vivid memories of giving Sasha a bottle and rocking here to sleep as we were watching the aftermath of those attacks. It gave you a sense for the first time in my lifetime that our homeland could be vulnerable in that way."
He added, "We hadn't seen an attack like that since Pearl Harbor, and I think it inspired all of us to remember just how precious what we have is and the need to defend it at any cost."
Obama said he would later have strong disagreements with the administration of President George W. Bush on Iraq and other issues but "I remember and give great credit to President Bush for being at the site (of the New York attacks), throwing out that first pitch at Yankee Stadium."
He recalled "everybody remembering that we're not a Democrat first or a Republican first, or a Texan first or a Californian first – we're Americans and we all had to come together. My hope is that always on day like today that we remember that sense that what binds us together is much more important than anything that divides us. All of you in your service exemplify that today."
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com