"For a decade, we have labored under the dark cloud of war. Now, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon," the president said, speaking on a stage in the middle of the football field with the cadets, dressed in blue and white uniforms, seated in rows before him. "The end of these wars will shape your service, and it will make our military stronger."
Obama's appearance came just two days after he had presided over a NATO summit in Chicago in which the allied nations agreed to a framework to wind down the Afghan war by 2014. Over the last half-year, Obama has touted the end of the Iraq war and the drawdown in Afghanistan as centerpieces of his foreign policy record as he makes his case for reelection, reminding the public that he had made good on his campaign pledge to end the Iraq conflict.
The Obama campaign has targeted military families as a source of potential votes in battleground states, hoping to undercut a traditionally strong voting bloc for Republicans. Vice President Biden is to speak at the graduation ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy on Saturday.
The president used much of his speech to declare that American influence has not waned, as some of his critics have suggested. Instead, he argued, "the United States is leading once more. From Europe to Asia, our alliances are stronger than ever."
He pointed to the partnership with Japan after the earthquake and tsunami last year and his administration's approach to aiding the Libyan rebels in overthrowing the oppressive regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
The argument was aimed squarely at sharp criticism from presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who has accused Obama of being too soft on Iran. Republicans also have accused the president of responding too slowly to the pro-democracy movements challenging long-standing autocracies in the Middle East and North Africa and failing to act decisively enough to end Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown.
"As we've done the work of ending these wars, we've laid the foundation for a new era of American leadership," Obama said. "Let's start by putting aside the tired notion that says our influence has waned, that America is in decline."
To those who have questioned whether he subscribes to the notion of American exceptionalism, the president pointedly used those very words.
"Never bet against the United States," he said, adding that "the United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs. This is one of the many examples of why America is exceptional."
His appearance at the Air Force Academy followed similar appearances during the last three years at the Naval Academy, West Point and the Coast Guard Academy.