WASHINGTON (CNN) — Recognizing and honoring America’s military can provide a salve for the bitterly fought presidential election, President Barack Obama said Friday during his final Veterans Day as commander in chief.
“Whenever the world makes you cynical, whenever you doubt that courage and goodness and selflessness is possible, stop and look to a veteran,” Obama said during a late-morning speech from Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.
He said the November day the US sets aside to remember those who served in the military often falls after an election — “an exercise in the free speech and self-government” that veterans fight for every day.
“It often lays bare disagreements across our nation,” Obama noted. “But the American instinct has never been to find isolation in opposite corners. It is to find strength in our common creed, to forge unity from our great diversity, to sustain that strength and unity even when it is hard.”
“When the election is over, as we search for ways to come together, to reconnect with one another and with the principles that are more enduring than transitory politics, some of our best examples are the men and women we salute on Veterans Day,” he added.
It was Obama’s final Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery, where he’s laid a wreath and delivered remarks for seven of his eight years in office. (In 2010, he was abroad in South Korea and marked the occasion at the Yongsan Army Garrison in Seoul).
He’s often remarked that one of the most cherished privileges of the presidency is meeting and interacting with US servicemen and veterans. He’s said he’ll miss those opportunities when he leaves office in January.
But he’s also faced criticism from the ranks, who have questioned his strategy to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. And his administration confronted a scandal when it was revealed by reporting including that of CNN that Veterans Affairs hospitals were concealing wait times for care.
In Tuesday’s election, veterans went overwhelmingly for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, according to exit polls. Sixty-one percent backed the real estate mogul, as opposed to 34% who supported Democrat Hillary Clinton. Veterans represented 13% of the voting population.
That’s a rightward shift from 2008, when 54% of voters who had served in the US military backed Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, and 44% backed Obama.
On Friday, Trump had no public Veterans Day events scheduled, though his transition team has not yet begun releasing the President-elect’s daily schedule in advance.
Speaking at Arlington, Obama acknowledged that speeches and wreath-layings were an inadequate way to repay members of the armed forces.
“On Veterans Day, we acknowledge humbly that we can never serve our veterans in quite the same way that they served us, but we can try,” Obama said. “We can practice kindness. We can pay it forward. We can volunteer. We can serve. We can respect one another. We can always get each other’s backs.”