Obama Tells Air Force Cadet Grads of 'New Era'

Touting his foreign policy record, President Obama today told graduates of the U.S. Air Force Academy that they will be entering into a "new era of American leadership" because of the steps taken by his administration.

"Today, we can say with confidence and pride-the United States is stronger, safer and more respected in the world," the president told the 1,000 graduates gathered in the Air Force football stadium.

The president used the commencement address to hit upon several campaign themes and draw stark contrasts with his GOP rival Mitt Romney.

The president made clear his belief that "America is exceptional," a defense against Romney who has questioned Obama's belief in America as a unique and unrivaled world power.

"The world stage is not a popularity contest," Obama said as he defended his foreign policy decisions. "As a nation, we have vital interests, and we will do what is necessary to defend the country we love-even if it's unpopular.  But make no mistake, how we're viewed in the world has consequences-for our national security, for your lives.

"There's a new feeling about America" because of the progress made by his administration.  There's a new confidence in our leadership.  And when people around the world are asked 'Which country do you admire most?'…one nation comes out on top-the United States of America," he said.

The president pointed to the end of the war in Iraq and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan as proof that the cadets are stepping into "a different world."

"You are the first class in nine years that will graduate into a world where there are no Americans fighting in Iraq," he said.  "For the first time in your lives-and thanks to Air Force personnel who did their part-Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat to our country.  We've put al Qaeda on the path to defeat.  And you are the first graduates since 9/11 who can see clearly how we'll end the war in Afghanistan."

"We aren't just ending these wars, we're doing so in a way that makes us safer, and stronger," he added.

Obama also highlighted the Arab Spring, saying the U.S. "led from the front" in Libya, a response to Republicans who have said the president is leading from behind.

Looking to the future, the president defended budget cuts that will create a "leaner" military, insisting the U.S. will remain "the finest, most capable military the world has ever known."

"We'll keep our military, and our Air Force, fast, flexible and versatile," he said. "We will maintain our military superiority in all areas - air, land, sea, space and cyber."

The president then stood for over two hours and saluted each graduate, shaking their hands as they received their diploma and saluted their commander-in-chief in return.

"It means a lot," sophomore Kevin Wise told ABC of the president's visit. "It's really nice to know that we are not unimportant - all the service academies. It really helps me feel personally that we have a serious sense of purpose."

"We're tremendously honored," Col. Billy Walker, deputy athletic director and football coach, said. "He's our commander-in-chief and for our young graduates to be able to witness that first hand, it's a fantastic experience for them and really ties everything in that they go through in their four years… Whether it's an election year or not an election year, we're focused on our jobs."