PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) – President Barack Obama visited Pittsburgh Tuesday to speak at the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ national convention, and also honor slain service members killed in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Air Force One touched down shortly before 11 a.m. After stepping off the plane, President Obama spoke with several local politicians including, Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
He also shook hands and took pictures with a crowd of spectators at the airport before getting in the motorcade to make his way downtown. Peduto and Fitzgerald joined the President on his ride to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Peduto: “Why don’t you ride along with me and tell me more.”
KDKA’s Jon Delano: “So, you rode with the President in from the airport?”
Peduto: “Yeah, so County Executive Fitzgerald and I were sort of taken aback and both laughed, and we got in the car, and we had a great 30-minute conversation with the President.”
The mayor said they went through a lengthy wish list for the region, but it was light, too.
“We talked about former Chicago Blackhawk and Pittsburgh native Brandon Saad. We talked about the Pirates. We talked about the Pennsylvania budget. We talked about politics. The conversation was non-stop,” said Peduto.
An hour later, Peduto was still a bit high from the experience.
“Coming through the tunnel and glimpsing out of the side of your eye and seeing the President look at it and see it, it’s one of those moments of life I’m never going to forget,” Peduto said.
County Executive Fitzgerald joined “The KDKA Morning News” to talk about his “unbelievable” ride with the President.
Fitzgerald says President Obama, “has been [to Pittsburgh] many times, and he loves Pittsburgh and he loved to talk about it on the ride.”
Fitzgerald says they discussed a variety of topics and one of them was how Pittsburgh “transformed“ itself. He adds the President also, “mentioned how beautiful Pittsburgh is,” and how most people who haven’t been to Pittsburgh don’t realize how nice it is.
But President Obama’s visit comes amid serious persisting problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has been under intense scrutiny for more than a year over waitlists and other shortcomings in the VA health system. Last week, the VA said it can’t count how many veterans died while waiting to sign up for health care, and may have to close some hospitals if Congress does not address a $2.5 billion shortfall.
During his visit, the President addressed directly the fiasco at the local VA hospitals.
“Here in Pittsburgh an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease a few years ago killed six veterans and infected others. That was a tragedy,” said President Obama. “And whenever there is any missteps, there is no excuse. So our hearts go out to the families who have lost loved ones and know that there is now new leadership at the Pittsburgh VA. The safety measures that are now in place are some of the strongest in the nation.”
The President said the VA must never let that happen again and hailed his new VA secretary, former Procter and Gamble CEO Bob McDonald, for turning around long wait-times at VA hospitals.
“The VA reached out to vets across the country to get them off those wait-lists and in for care,” President Obama said. “Bob is bringing energetic new leadership. He is working to hold people accountable and making sure that whistleblowers are protected instead of punished.”
For many of the veterans, the issue of health care and the VA system are a top priority.
“With the President’s message, I especially like that he’s going after veteran’s issues, especially those issues in the VA, and how they’re bringing down in the major hospitals, but also the clinics to make them run a little smoother,” said Jason Payer, of New York.
While the reception was generally warm to the commander-in-chief, a VFW member from South Dakota tried to unfurl a sign that read “the emperor of Benghazi has no clothes.” When his sign was taken, he stood in protest until he shouted during the president’s speech, which led to his being escorted from the ballroom.
While there was no mention of Benghazi, President Obama did hail the fight against ISIS using air power, not U.S. troops on the ground.
“Have no doubt. We will degrade and ultimately destroy this barbaric organization. We’ve got the coalition, and we’ve got right on our side and it will happen,” he said.
The President promised to keep the strength of the military intact, and said he had a better idea than budget sequestration for the military.
“He says he’s protecting our country, but yet he’s downsizing all of our military, closing bases, getting rid of ships we can use,” said Terri Reeser, of North Hampton County, Pennsylvania.
“I like what he said about sequestration, putting an end to that and continuing to support our military,” said Glenn Umberger, of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.
After his speech the President issued a proclamation for flags to be flown at half-staff through July 25 to honor slain Marines and a Sailor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. President Obama issued the order Tuesday to lower the flag, following similar moves at the U.S. Capitol and even by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. The order also follows criticism of the White House.
Four Marines and one Navy sailor were killed during shootings by 24-year-old Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez at two Tennessee military sites.
President Obama called it a “mark of respect for the victims of the senseless acts of violence.”
After Pennsylvania, President Obama hopped a quick flight to New York to tape one of Jon Stewart’s final episodes after 16 years hosting the Comedy Central show.
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