In Atlanta visit, Obama to address vets, Democrats, but won't escape economy questions

Ronnie Rogers served only about a year in the Army, but the effects have lasted a lifetime.

He was diagnosed with cancer tied to his exposure to the Agent Orange herbicide in Vietnam. Spinal cord injuries at least partly connected to his wartime experience left him in a wheelchair.

One of the things the Marietta man worries about the most now, though, is losing his veteran's benefits.

"They've taken really good care of me so far," said Rogers, now 60. "But I'm not sure what the next few years are going to be like. With money down like it is, I know they just can't keep handing it out."

When President Barack Obama arrives in Atlanta on Monday to speak at the Disabled American Veterans' annual convention, he'll be met with applause but also with fears like Rogers'.

Officially, the president plans to use the speech to mark the winding down of U.S. involvement in Iraq over the next month. He is expected to renew his pledge to reduce the troop count in Iraq to 50,000 by the end of August, with remaining troops serving mainly in an advisory role.

But persistent fears about the economy and increasing pressure to cut federal spending will also be an inescapable part of the president's first visit to Atlanta since taking office -- both at his speech to veterans and at a separate appearance at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser. Both events are at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta on Peachtree Street.

"The monster we're dealing with here is still the recession -- if the money is not coming in, something has to be cut," said Michael Dover, a 21-year Army veteran who suffers from neck injuries and digestive problems he said stemmed "basically from jumping out of too many airplanes." Dover, 47, is the Georgia state commander for the Disabled American Veterans group.

"What I'd like to hear is that he's not going to stop fighting for our benefits and taking care of that small percentage of Americans that served our country," Dover said.

In an interview, Scott Gould, deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said in addition to addressing Iraq, the president will discuss his "principal commitments to vets" -- including ensuring they all get the benefits they need.

The president also is expected to tout his commitment to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has seen its budget increase steadily despite government cuts elsewhere, Gould said. Obama also likely will discuss new programs aimed at reducing the number of homeless vets and caring for the growing number of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries.

"Whatever it takes to meet vets' needs, we're going to make sure vets have," Gould said.

Obama's speech to an expected 3,000 members of the Disabled American Veterans group -- the first by a sitting president since Bill Clinton -- comes at a pivotal time in his administration's relationship with veterans.

Along with the drawdown in Iraq and a ramp-up in Afghanistan, the administration is dealing with the fallout from the recent leak of Afghanistan war documents and a scandal involving Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.

Yet both critics and supporters of the president say he shouldn't leave Atlanta without addressing the economy -- especially in a state where the unemployment rate is still stubbornly stuck at 10 percent.

"It would be nice ... if he would talk about how he's going to change course because his programs aren't increasing jobs and they aren't decreasing the deficit," said Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Roswell, a staunch Obama critic. "But I just hope he'll say something that resembles the truth."

Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, one of Obama's biggest supporters in Congress, said he expects the president to address the economy at the Democratic Party fundraiser luncheon, where the crowd will include many of Atlanta's business and political leaders.

"People in Georgia are very concerned about jobs," Lewis said. "Unemployment in some parts of Atlanta and other urban centers is very, very high.

"I run into people all the time who tell me, ‘Congressman, help me find a job … I need a job,' " Lewis said.