President Barack Obama concluded a two-day West Coast swing Wednesday by telling Marines at Camp Pendleton that the nation was grateful for their service in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"I'm here because, for more than a decade, you and all our men and women in uniform have borne the burden in this time of war, ever since that awful September morning when our nation was attacked and thousands of innocent Americans were killed," Obama said.
He later said, "After all you've given your nation, you must know your nation is grateful to you."
Obama spoke for more than 20 minutes in a hangar filled with around 2,900 Marines, sailors and their families, including members of the Wounded Warrior Battalion West -- made up of service men and women recovering from serious battlefield injuries.
Also in attendance were Reps. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, Darrell Issa, R- Vista, and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach.
Obama spent nearly 10 minutes shaking hands and speaking to Marines before he departed aboard a Marine helicopter. His first trip to the sprawling base followed stops in Los Angeles and Phoenix.
He told the Pendleton audience that even though Afghan troops were beginning to take the lead in the fight against Islamic extremists in the mountainous country, the Marines still faced "a hard fight" in the months ahead.
The president also reminded them threats to U.S. interests existed elsewhere in the world.
"We're going to keep standing up for our interests, we're going to keep standing up for the security of our citizens, we're going to keep standing up for human rights and dignity for people wherever they live," Obama said.
"We're going to keep working with our allies and our partners. We're going to keep offering a future of hope and progress, in stark contrast to terrorists who only know how to kill and destroy and maim.
"And like generations before us, the United States of America is going to remain the greatest force for freedom that the world has ever known," the president said. "You are an integral part of that. That's what you do, serving in uniform every day."
Obama criticized Congress for automatic budget cuts known as sequestration that have crimped military budgets, and warned the Marines that sexual assaults undermine the military.
Earlier, in Los Angeles, he announced he would attend an economic summit of developed nations in St. Petersburg, Russia, but will skip a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The decision comes after Russia granted asylum to fugitive U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Also this morning, Obama fielded online questions from homeowners, renters and prospective buyers in a virtual housing roundtable discussion.
Obama began the trip Tuesday in Arizona, where he toured a construction company and delivered a speech at a Phoenix high school, calling for sweeping housing reforms, including the elimination of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He then flew to Los Angeles aboard Air Force One to appear on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," where he attempted to win Republican congressional support for increased spending on infrastructure.
"For the last three years I've said let's work together," Obama said. "Let's find a financing mechanism and let's go ahead and fix our bridges, fix our roads, sewer systems, our ports."
Obama cited the widening of the Panama Canal to accommodate supertankers, set to be completed in 2015, as one reason to support increased spending on domestic infrastructure.
"If we don't deepen our ports all along the Gulf (of Mexico) -- places like Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah, Georgia or Jacksonville, Florida -- ... those ships are going to go somewhere else. We'll lose jobs. Businesses won't locate here."
Obama also criticized a new law in Russia banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations."
"I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays and lesbians and transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them," Obama said.
"What's happening in Russia is not unique. When I traveled to Africa, there were some countries that are doing a lot of good things for their people, who are working with them and helping them on development issues, but in some cases they persecute gays and lesbians and it makes for some uncomfortable press conferences sometimes.
"But one of the things I think is very important for me to speak out on is making sure that people are treated fairly and justly because that's what we stand for."
Obama said he did not think the law would impact next year's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
"I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure that the Olympics work and I think that they understand that for most of the counties that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn't tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently. They are athletes. They are there to compete.
"If Russia wants to uphold the Olympic spirit, then every judgment should be made on the track, or swimming pool or on the balance beam and people's sexual orientation shouldn't have anything to do with it."
Asked if he was surprised that Putin's government had given Snowden temporary asylum, the president responded in relatively muted terms that suggested the issue might not become a major bone of contention in the long term in U-S-Russian relations.
"I was disappointed," he said, adding that American authorities try to work with the Russians on issues involving globe-trotting lawbreakers despite the absence of an extradition treaty. "They didn't do that with us, and in some ways it's reflective of some underlying challenges that we've had with Russia lately."
Obama said, however, that the Russians remain helpful on some issues, including counter-terrorism and supplying U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
In a wide-ranging interview, Obama also fielded questions on topics including government surveillance and the safety of vacationing abroad. He acknowledged government surveillance programs have "raised a lot of questions for people," but are a "critical component to counterterrorism."
"We don't have a domestic spying program," Obama said. "What we do have is some mechanisms that can track a phone number or an email address that is connected to some sort of terrorist threat. That information is useful."
The State Department issued a travel alert Friday that is set to expire Aug. 31, reminding U.S. citizens of the potential for terrorist attacks, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.
"The general rule is just show some common sense and some caution," Obama said. "If people are paying attention, checking with the State Department or embassy, going on the website before you travel and find out what kind of precautions you should be taking, then I think it still makes sense for people to take vacations. They just have to make sure that they are doing so in a prudent way."
The "Tonight Show" appearance was Obama's fourth as president. He is the only sitting president to have appeared on the NBC late-night talk show, which premiered in 1954.
–City News Service