President Barack Obama: Town meeting in Memorial Hall, Racine, Wisconsin
President Barack Obama holds a town hall meeting at Memorial Hall , Racine, Wisconsin
President Barack Obama's town hall meeting, Memorial Hall, Racine, Wisconsin

President Obama in Racine, Wisconsin

by July 3, 20100 comments

When news broke last weekend that President Barack Obama would be holding a town hall meeting here in Racine on June 30, the area media struggled to understand its purpose.

On a national level, there is currently no sharper political analyst than MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. The night before the president’s visit, she diagrammed how House Republlicans have been failing the fundamentals of politics:

You can’t help but love Maddow’s glee in dismissing our ever-aspiring congressman Paul Ryan and the misguided “roadmap” he is perennially pushing. You also can’t help but wonder whether House Republican Leader John Boehner had perhaps enjoyed a little red wine prior to his Q&A session with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Tickets were handed out at Racine’s Festival Hall on Tuesday morning — 1,000 of them with a limit of 2 per person. We got in line at 6:30 a.m. with about 180 people in front of us, and received our tickets at 11:00. There were an awful lot of people still in line as we left.

Some grumps complain about traffic disruption and security costs, but most Americans are intrigued by the idea of seeing their president in person (this was to be my first time), and the conventional wisdom says that this type of “town hall” event allows him to deliver his message to the public without any counterspin or filtering inserted by political pundits.

The opposition has been quite successful of late in fueling general anti-Obama sentiment. He is accused of not wanting to fix BP’s oil spill in the Gulf, and he is blamed for everything from U.S. immigration policy, to the economic crash that happened four months before he took office, to the unemployment that lingers.

My own young nephew has been influenced by the din. He makes sour faces at any mention of Barack Obama’s name. The vague, general negativity strategy dissected so succinctly by Rachel Maddow is in total control of his teenage temperament.

The kid cheered when, as part of the pre-event analysis on Milwaukee’s TMJ4, Jeff Wagner of Newsradio 620 repeatedly hammered on the supposed hypocrisy of Obama addressing the economy even though jobs have been lost under his administration. “Obama said he was going to bring change,” my nephew challenged me. “Where is the change?”

Bush / Obama job growth graph

I showed him the “bikini graph,” based on Bureau of Labor Statistics figures:

Every bar below the line is jobs lost — so yes, it is true that jobs have been lost under the Obama administration. But as the chart shows, while more and more jobs were lost each month at the end of the Bush administration, fewer and fewer jobs were lost once Obama took office — and soon, jobs were gained.

Compare the red to the blue. That is the change.

Apart from his sudden silence, I saw no indication that my nephew’s mind was changed.

Update, November 2010: Because so many people arrive here searching for things like “Obama vs. Bush jobs” or “job graph Obama Bush,” I am adding a video of Council of Economic Advisors chairman Austan Goolsby showing the Bush/Obama job growth chart as of October, 2010.

Update, May 2011: Take a look at the Bush/Obama jobs graph through April 2011, when the US economy added 266,000 private-sector jobs — the most in five years.

Update, April 2016: Under President Obama, the United States has experienced a 66-month streak of job growth — our longest since 1939. In terms of private sector job growth, the streak is the longest in U.S. history at 73 months.

Displeasure was simmering locally for days before the president’s visit. The cause of the irritation was an administration decision against backing a deal that Bucyrus International, a South Milwaukee heavy equipment manufacturer, wanted to make involving a power plant in India. It was a typical jobs-vs.-environment dilemma, and significant numbers of Bucyrus workers slammed Obama while waiting in line for tickets to see and confront him — only to drop their angry signs and cheer him when he arrived shortly after getting the decision reversed. The turnaround was stunning.

Still, the president has some considerable image-rebuilding to accomplish before November. He has to correct the public impression of how his policies are working so far, and he also has to get people to consider the alternative: What would the Republicans do if they are put back in charge?

Air Force One in flight, from Racine, Wisconsin before President Barack Obama's visit

While we waited outside Racine’s Memorial Hall for a couple of hours on Wednesday, we were actually able to see Air Force One as it circled into Milwaukee’s Mitchell Field. People waved, but the plane was pretty far away. Inside, security was polite, but also more strict than what you typically experience at airports. All of the attendees were solemnly cooperative. One of the sacred rituals of election season is the eating of the visited land’s native foods, and here too President Obama was getting back into practice. He stopped for Racine’s famous kringle at O & H Danish Bakery on his way into town and picked out three to take with him. It’s kind of funny to think of the Obamas at home in the White House snacking on pastry from a bakery within walking distance of my house.

Meanwhile in downtown Racine, my nephew and I were guided up to Memorial Hall’s balcony, where I chose seats in the second row, dead center — just one row behind the seats I had pictured us occupying. The event got underway a little before 1:15 with an invocation, the Pledge, and the “Star Spangled Banner.” Then there was an odd pause for about 5 minutes before suddenly the President of the United States was introduced to strong applause. Mr. Obama shook hands with some of the crowd, and took the podium.

I love our Flip Ultra HD camcorder, but since it has only a 2x digital zoom, it is not a great camera for events at a distance like this, so I’ll only inflict these short excerpts of my own video on you.

The much better quality video below, “Town Hall Meeting on the Economy,” is available for viewing, embedding, and downloading via the White House website.

My overall impression was of something smaller and more old-fashioned than I expected. As a venue, Memorial Hall is somewhat dated and not very big. On this beautiful Midwest afternoon just before Independence Day, it had a wholesome and humble ambiance reminiscent of a simpler time. Mr. Obama himself favors a retro, almost early-1960s style. Some deride him as a would-be rock star, but he just seemed like an extraordinarily hardworking human to me. I kept thinking of all the things he does in any week, and I was reminded of that famous photo of his worn shoes.

In addition to seeing the president visit my town, another thrill was having several friends and family members involved in the proceedings. My wife Amy has done a bit of volunteering locally, and she fired off an email to volunteer for this event as soon as she heard it would happen. (Sign up with Organizing for America if you would like to help support the president’s efforts.)

Amy also alerted a few nearby friends and relatives. She was ultimately assigned to lead the event’s microphone runners, with several of “her girls” handling the mics at locations around Memorial Hall.

In the video above, Amy is on the side aisle wearing a white top as she coordinates her microphone team. Our friend Toshya is in pink holding the mic for an early question, and our friend Anna is up in the balcony to field John Siegert’s question about the stimulus.

Also seen in the video is President Obama meeting my sister. Karen was posted with her microphone onstage in the last seat at stage left. As the event concluded, the president shook hands with people along the full arc in front of the stage. Then, just when he was about to exit through a curtain, Karen shot a low wave at him and he came back to shake hers as well. At the same time, she unconsciously began to step toward him off the edge of the stage. Mr. Obama warned, “Don’t fall now” as he approached her, likely saving them both from some bruises. After they exchanged quick compliments, she pumped her fist high in excitement.

This presidential visit was a captivating, closeup brush with current events. I was fascinated to see how quickly it all came together, and it made me proud that Racine was such a great host city. We got a mention two days later when President Obama commented on June’s job numbers (making 6 straight months of private sector job growth), and Racine was also noted in the White House’s weekly roundup video, “West Wing Week: ‘Home of the Kringle’.”

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