From the moment Barack Obama took the small stage set up in Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Park, he was trying to cast an image that was more common than presidential. Dressed in a simple blue button-down shirt and drinking hot tea out of a Styrofoam cup, he described himself as a “caged bear” that occasionally breaks loose from the Secret Service. “I’m feeling super loose today,” he said to laughs.
The town hall style of the event on Thursday afternoon was also meant to be laid back and free flowing, even though the small crowd of several hundred had been carefully curated and was dominated by Democrats. Even before arriving at the park, Obama chose to dine at Matt’s Bar, a famed Minneapolis dive and home to the cheese-in-the-patty “Jucy Lucy” burger.
“I grew up not in tough circumstances, but I was you guys. Somebody out here is going through what my mom went through. Somebody out here is going through what my grandma went through. Somebody out here is going through what Michelle and I went through when we were first married and our kids were first born. It’s not like I forget,” he told the crowd. “That was just 20 years ago that we were trying to figure out how to buy our first home. This is 10 years ago when we finished off paying our student loans.”
Touting economic policies for struggling middle-class families is a message Democrats hope resonates this fall. While the town hall event was not overtly political, Obama’s visit comes five months before a midterm election in which Democrats across the nation will see turnout drop significantly.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken are up for re-election, and Democrats are fighting to maintain control of the state House. Obama attended a high-dollar fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Thursday evening at the Minneapolis home of Sam and Sylvia Kaplan, and Friday morning he will speak at a public event at another Minneapolis park on Lake Harriet.
An economy-focused message
He answered questions from the audience for about an hour on everything from gun violence and the rising costs of college tuition to climate change, but he kept his own un-scripted remarks focused on how he felt Democratic policies had put the economy back on course.
“By just about every economic measure, we are significantly better off than we were when I came into office,” Obama said. “We’ve created now 9.4 million new jobs over the last 51 months. The unemployment rate here in Minnesota is the lowest it’s been since 2007. But here’s the thing — and I’m not telling you anything that you don’t know — there are still a lot of folks struggling out there.”
He talked about his push for an increase in the federal minimum wage — without specifically mentioning Minnesota’s recent increase from $6.15 per hour to $9.50 by 2016 — and his support for equal pay for everyone.
A woman in the crowd stood up and said she left her job at a corporation because she found out she was being paid $3 less than a male co-worker. He touted a bill he signed in his first term that allows women to sue when they find out they are being paid less than a man and called on Congress to sign the Paycheck Fairness Act in Congress. “I want my daughters getting paid the same as men do,” he said.
The crowd applauded his talk of efforts for flexible workplaces and paid family leave. In Minnesota this year, lawmakers passed the Women’s Economic Security Act, which aims to create opportunities for women in high wage jobs, reduce the gender pay gap and strengthen workplace flexibility for pregnant and nursing mothers.
“All of these things are achievable,” Obama said. “But we’ve got to make Washington work for you — not for special interests, not for lobbyists.”
Guns, climate change and higher ed
But the crowd had other questions for the president. The second question Obama received was about reducing gun violence. He called the failure of a gun violence reduction bill after the Sandy Hook school shooting — which increased background checks — “the most disappointing moment that I’ve had with Congress.” He called on advocates to organize to push back on the influence of the National Rifle Association.
Several people in the crowd wanted to know what the president was doing about the high costs of college tuition, burying students and their parent in loans and debt. Obama talked about work at the federal level to keep student-loan interests rates low and graduation rates high, but he put part of the burden on local governments.
“Part of the reason that tuition has gone up is because state legislatures across the country have consistently lowered the support that they provide public universities and community colleges,” he said. “Then the community colleges and the public universities feel obliged to increase tuition rates.”
Someone asked what the president planned to do about climate change, which the president described as “not just a problem of polar bears — although I really like polar bears — and the ice caps melting.” He described changing weather patterns that have led to snow caps melting, droughts and more natural disasters. He talked about investments in clean energy like wind and solar in the United States, but cited the opposition of oil companies.
“These traditional sources of fuel — fossil fuels — we’re going to use for a while, but we can’t just keep on using them forever,” he said. “We’ve got to develop new ways of producing energy so that your generation isn’t seeing a planet that is starting to break down.”
‘Cynicism is popular’
Obama’s parting message for the crowd was to not be too cynical about Washington. The president has felt some of that himself in recent months, reached a near personal low in his job approval rating at 41 percent, according to the latest Gallup poll.
Republicans in the state — including the four candidates running for governor and GOP-endorsed U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden — hope Obama’s visit is a drag on the DFL ticket. They used the visit to try and tie Franken to the president’s policies, but the senator ultimately did not fly back to Minnesota on Air Force One or attend the town hall.
The president drew a sharp contrast between himself and congressional Republicans, and pleaded with the crowd not to lose faith that things can get done on Capitol Hill.
“These are just Washington fights. They’re fabricated issues. They’re phony scandals that are generated. It’s all geared towards the next election or ginning up a base,” he said. “You guys are the reason I ran. You’re who I’m thinking about every single day. And just because it’s not reported in the news, I don’t want you to think that I’m not fighting for you.
“I don’t want you to be cynical,” he signed off. “Cynicism is popular these days, but hope is better.”