Obama in Ottumwa

UPDATE:  Here’s the Radio Iowa story of this event.  What follows is a live blog.

obama-girlsPresident Obama is due to speak later this afternoon in the student center on the Indian Hills Community College campus in Ottumwa. As the jazz of David Sanborn is pumped through the sound system, the crowd (estimated to be about 2100) slowly files into the gymnasium. here  At 2:30, several members of the Indian Hills softball team were in their seats near the back of the gym, waiting for the rest of the squad to arrive  Why the back of the hall?  The women are due to play a softball game tonight at 7:30 against William Penn, in Oskaloosa, and they need to make a hasty exit when Obama’s through speaking.

“Oh, I am stoked that he is coming.  I was so excited when I found out the news. I am a big Obama fan,” said Nicole Steinle of Fort Collins, Colorado, the Warriors’ catcher.

Steinle, who is a freshman, was not old enough to vote in 2008.  “Unfortunately I was not but both of my parents voted for him,” she said.

Jordan Grell of Moville, Iowa — an infielder on the Indian Hills softball squad — was old enough to vote in 2008 and she voted for Obama.   “I’m from a small town so this kind of stuff doesn’t happen very often and for a small college like this, it’s really big,” Grell said.  “It’s very exciting.”

Grell said she is “concerned” about the way Obama is being perceived by the general public.  “I think that it takes a while for change,” she said, “so I think he’s headed for some kind of change in a good way.”

Forty-five-year-old Kevin Pope of Ottumwa has “always been a Democrat” and believes the president’s visit to his town may help Democrats.

“It should bring us closer together and hopefully we can get some stuff done with this unemployment that’s going on,” he said.  “That’s kind of what I was trying to really see, what was going to happen there, you know, you got the extension for the third (time).  What’s going to happen the people that it runs out on?  What are we going to do for them?  People working part-time can’t find a full-time job…I work part-time at Menard’s.  (My) unemployment ran out.”

obama-crowdHe’s among the folks who’ve been invited to sit on a set of bleachers behind the stage where Obama will stand.  It’s the first time he’s seen a president in person.  “First time!  How exciting is that?  Regardless of who the president is, if you have an opportunity to see this, why not take that opportunity?” Pope said before being ushered into his spot.

Duane Fuller of Muscatine is sitting near Pope.  He is among the Iowans who supported Obama early in 2007 and joined Organizing For America after the ’08 campaign ended.  He’s been making telephone calls to the Obama network, “trying to get people on board; just got people on board with health care.”

Like Pope, Fuller is looking for a full-time job that pays well.

“I think it’s a very hard time right now in Iowa because a lot of people are out of work. I myself have been unemployed or underemployed for a year and a half and I know it’s hard to find a job and that’s what the president’s here talking about and it speaks directly to me…It’s just that nobody needs anyone and if they do, they want to pay you $7.25 an hour and when you’ve got a (college loan) to pay off, you can’t make it on minimum wage,” said Fuller, who is 34 years old.

At 3:47 p.m. a minister led the crowd in prayer, a college student sang the national anthem and then there was a lull.  By 4:25 p.m. another student introduced Obama.  A roar goes up from the crowd; after about 15 seconds “Hail to the Chief” is played over the sound system.

“Hello everybody.  Hello Ottumwa.  Good to see you,” Obama said.  “…I miss you guys.”

Obama introduced Tom Vilsack, the US Ag Secretary who has been along on this trip; Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller; the mayor of Ottumwa and the president of Indian Hills Community College.

“Jim was bragging about the ball team here,” Obama said, prompting the players in the crowd to cheer.  “They seem very confident.  It is wonderful to see all of you.”

Obama began by mentioning the 2008 flooding in nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“I just want to briefly mention the continued resilience of the folks up in the Cedar Rapids area…It has taken a long time to clean up after that but I promised our administration would be a committed partner in their recovery,” Obama said, mentioning some federal aide that was announced yesterday.

A woman in the crowd screams something.  “I love you, too.” Obama replied. “…It is just good to be back in Iowa. If it wasn’t for Iowa, I wouldn’t be president.  I believe that.”

Obama reminisced about the 2008 campaign and his arrival today in Marine One compared to his mode of transport in 2007, a “little van” or a bus.

He talked about his visits earlier in the day to the Siemens Energy plant in Fort Madison and to an organic farm near Mount Pleasant.

“When you get out in the heartland and you talk to folks, there is a lot to learn from rural America because it is towns like this that give America its heartbeat,” Obama said.

Obama said he had tried to “keep faith” with the campaign promises he made.  “Let’s face it,” Obama said. “Some of the steps we took were unpopular.”  Obama defended his actions, and touted tax cuts, tax credits and other components of the economic stimulus package passed last year.

“Sometimes you’ve got critics of what we did, but they’ll show up at the ribbon cutting,” Obama said.  “…2.5 million Americans went to work today who wouldn’t otherwise have gone to work.”

“…By the way, I’ve been out of work,” Obama said, but mentioned nothing else of his own employment history.

Obama talked about investment in clean energy. “Year after year Washington focuses on the next election rather than the next generation,” Obama said. 

Obama mentioned changes in student loans, getting applause from the crowd.  “We’re making college more affordable….and we’re proud to do it.”

Obama mentioned health care reform, and got a standing ovation from the crowd.  “I’m proud of it,” Obama repeats twice.

Obama talked about meeting a woman named Janice in Mount Pleasant earlier this afternoon.  According to Obama, Janice told him she and her husband “need help now because our premiums just went up $700 per month.”  Obama added:  “That’s who reform was for.”

Obama ran through a litany of items in the plan which will take effect this year.  

Next topic:  the federal deficit.  “These numbers keep me up at night but it is ironic that some of the folks who are loudest…left a $1.3 trillion deficit on my desk when I took office,” Obama said, to applause.  “I don’t know where they were over the last 10 years, why they weren’t protesting and all that.”

Obama brings up Wall Street reform that he told the crowd “puts an end to taxpayer bailouts once and for all.”  Obama noted Senate Republicans again voted today to bar debate of the plan.

“You’ve learned these senate rules are complicated,” Obama said.  “It’s one thing to oppose reform, but to oppose even talking about reform…The American people deserve an honest debate on this bill.”

Obama denounced Wall Street interests for trying to kill the bill. “We can’t have such a short memory that we let them convince us we don’t need to change the status quo on Wall Street,” Obama said.  The crowd rose for another standing ovation.

“Washington wants to act like this is all a political game,” Obama said. “…You don’t care which party comes out on top politicially…You just want us to live up to our responsibilities…That’s what our administration’s trying to do.”

Now, questions from the crowd.  The first came from a man who made an appeal for focus on reviving the manufacturing sector. “We need help, boss,” the man said.  Obama talked about a variety of things, including trade policies.

Next question from a woman who asks about unions and health care reform.  “I’m a pro-union guy.  Our unions helped build our middle class,” Obama said to open.

Next Obama calls on “one of those ballplayers” in the crowd.  “If you’re asking if I can beat you at h-o-r-s-e, the answer is yes,” Obama said.  The student asked for something, I can’t hear what. “That’s within my executive powers,” Obama replied.

Next qauestion from a woman who is an Indian Hills student: “I have a lot of undocumented friends and I was just wondering what your plan was for undocumented workers.”

Obama called immigration a “controversial issue” that requires a bipartisan “common sense” approach.

Obama said the U.S. benefits from new immigrants. “We constantly are replentishing ourselves with hungry, driven people…and our population is younger and more dynamic and that’s a good thing.”

Obama declared the current immigration system “broken.” 

Obama said there had been “significant progress” in securing the borders.  He said there was a need to “crack down on companies purposely hiring undocumented workers to undercut the wages of US workers.”

Obama called the new immigration law in Arizona “poorly conceived law. You can try to make it really tough on people who look like they might be ‘illegal immigrants’…but you can imagine if you are an Hispanic American in Arizona, your great grandparents may have been there before Arizona was even a state.”

Obama drew applause when laying out three general themes for an immigration reform bill: make them register, make them pay a fine, make them learn English.  “Get in the back of the line…but if you do it the right way, you have a chance to become an American citizen.”

Obama said with such a volatile issue, it will require a bipartisan vote in the House and Senate to pass immigration reform.  “…I’ve been pushing for this. I want it to happen,” Obama said. “…I’ve got to have some help from the other side…I hope that we can get it done sometime soon.”

Next question: about EPA requirement to upgrade sewer system in Ottumwa. “Everybody dislikes Washington right now.  Everybody wants to lower their taxes..but at the same time, government does some improtant things like…make sure your roads aren’t full of pot holes,” Obama said and the crowd tittered.  “I think I touched on a sore spot here, Mr. Mayor.”  Obama talked about deficit reduction.

Next question came from Tara Howard, a fifth grader, who asked what kind of pie Obama ate in Mt. Pleasant, and she said her grandma told her to say, ‘Hi!’ to Tom Vilsack. 

“I had rhubarb pie and it was a tasty pie,” Obama told Tara.  “…They have really good pie at the White House, so that’s one of the other perks that you get with being president.”

Finally, questions from two Ottumwa high school students, both young men.  They told Obama Ottumwa High has the highest drop-out rate in the country.  They noted there is financial aid for graduates and asked what was available for drop-outs.  They also asked if they could take a picture with Obama.  He said he didn’t know about that, but Obama said he could answer their question.

Obama talked about education reform.  “We can have the best teachers in the world…but if parents aren’t parenting their kids..then it’s not going to make any difference.”

Event over at 5:34 p.m. Iowa time.  County music piped through the hall as Obama shakes hands on the way out of the gym.

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.