President Barack Obama rolled into Madison, Wisconsin, on a crisp fall afternoon to rally his base for the upcoming midterm election. He spoke on the stairs of U.W.-Madison’s Memorial Library to an energetic crowd of 26,500 people.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m fired up,” he said when he took the stage to a roar of applause.
Obama was noticeably looser in his speech than in previous visits during the presidential campaign. Casually dressed in a light blue dress shirt with rolled sleeves and no tie, the President warmed up the audience with tales of his youth.
When he was a young man living in Chicago, he would occasionally drive up north to visit friends who went to school here. “I had some fun times here in Madison,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “I can’t give you all the details.”
The audience cheered in approval. UW’s reputation as a lefty oasis is trumped only by its reputation as a Big Ten party school.
Obama played to the college crowd. “The Badgers are looking pretty good this year,” he said, referring to Saturday’s UW-Austin Peay Governors’ football game. It was a blowout, 70-3.
The President said he wouldn’t say a word about the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers. No matter, people booed at the mention of the word Bears, who beat the Pack in a close game the previous night. The Bears got bigger boos from the crowd than the GOP.
The crowd’s enthusiasm didn’t drop even if the temperatures did. The clouds had taken over the sky for the short acoustic performances by indie rockers The National and for musician Ben Harper. Both played two songs. The National’s drone music wasn’t exactly uplifting, and the band’s earnestness was reminiscent of the 2008 hope fest. It was almost embarrassing.
Around 4 pm, the breeze from Lake Mendota began picking up and at one point it looked like rain. But when Obama spoke, almost on cue, the sun broke through the clouds, bathing the president in the soft golden light of late September.
Obama put his administration’s record in the best possible light, too. “We’ve made progress in 20 months,” Obama said. “We didn’t get everything done. It’s only been 2 years, guys.”
He talked about student loans (another crowd pleaser), health insurance reform, and having kept his promise to remove troops from Iraq.
But there was no mention of the war in Afghanistan.
No mention of the military tribunal under way this week for the first of twelve U.S. soldiers accused of forming a secret "kill team" in Afghanistan that allegedly blew up and shot Afghan civilians at random and collected their fingers as trophies.
No mention of the recent death of Staff Sgt. Matthew J. West, 36, from Conover, Wisconsin. West, along with four other soldiers, were killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan's Arghandab River Valley last month.
No mention of the deaths of other soldiers from Wisconsin who have been killed in Afghanistan this year, since the President began his troop surge.
No mention of Lance Cpl. Jacob Alexander Meinert, 20, from Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, who was killed when a roadside bomb detonated in Helmand province on January 10, 2010.
No mention of Lt. Col. Paul Robert Bartz, 43, from Waterloo, Wisconsin, who was one of five U.S. soldiers killed along with a Canadian soldier when a suicide car bomber detonated an explosive device in Kabul on May 18, 2010.
No mention of Pvt. Adam Jacob Novak, 20, of Prairie Du Sac, Wisconsin, who was one of two soldiers killed by a roadside bom detonated near their vehicle in Paktia province, Afghanistan, on August 27, 2010.
Instead, Obama told the crowd “Now is not the time to give up hope.”
He attacked the GOP, especially on the economy. “They were in charge and we saw what happened,” Obama said. As soon as he got into office, his team did its best to rescue the economy and clean up after the GOP’s mess, he said.
He went with a car in a ditch metaphor. The Republicans ran the economy into a ditch. And now they want the keys back. The crowd ate it up.
Like Representative Tammy Baldwin, Senator Russ Feingold, and
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (now running for governor), Obama talked
about the “enthusiasm gap” being peddled by Beltway pundits. (The
“enthusiasm gap” seemed right off a DNC talking points memo.)
“The other side is counting on you staying home,” Obama said. It’s counting on apathy, especially among young voters. “You’ve got to stick with me,” he implored.
He acknowledged that the euphoria has worn off since 2008. “During
the campaign, especially after we started winning, the feeling was
exciting, all those hope posters,” he said. “At the Inauguration,
Beyonce singing, and Bono. I know it feels a long way from the hope and
excitement that we felt on Election Day or the day of the Inauguration.”
“We always knew it was going to take time. We always knew this was going to be hard. I said it was going to be hard, remember?”
People streaming out of the VIP section mentioned how fantastic and dynamic the president’s performance was. For Obama supporters, his visit renewed their faith in hope and change. We’ll know in five weeks if this translates into door knocking and get out the vote work.
After leaving the press area, I found a group of young women at the base of Bascom Hill, the overflow area for the rally. They had lost each other in the crowd and had just gathered back together.
“I thought it was pretty sweet,” said Caitlin Overton, 21. “He’s a phenomenal speaker.”
One of her friends said the only thing missing was “Jump Around,” referring to a Badger football cheer.
I asked Overton if she had voted for Obama in 2008. She didn’t. “I’m the one black person who didn’t vote for Obama,” she joked to her friends who were surprised. She didn’t vote for the Dems due to social issues. But this time the economy is a bigger issue for her.
So would she vote for Obama this time around?
Overton was noncommittal. “He got me thinking.”
In Madison, President Obama returned to his soaring rhetoric of 2008 and the campus audience gave him a lusty endorsement. But even Obama couldn’t charm everyone.