Claiming a burning need to get out of politics-obsessed Washington, President Obama visited St. Louis yesterday for a nice, relaxing chat about health care. After delivering his speech at St. Charles High School, the president dropped in at the Renaissance Grand Hotel downtown for a benefit
for his host, Senator Claire McCaskill
Remember the first time Obama came here, back in 2008? Remember how 100,000 people gathered under the Arch
, all shouting "Yes we can!"
Washington Avenue was not like that yesterday. The crowd was considerably smaller, and about half of it was hostile. By some unknown prearranged agreement, the Tea Party
colonized the north half of the street, while Obama's supporters took the south side, coincidentally the side nearest the entrance to the hotel.
Both sides held up signs. The Tea Partiers waved flags. The two contingents shouted unpleasantaries at each other. On the south side, the sound of one man screaming "Traitors!" at the Tea Partiers gradually segued into a rousing chorus of "We Shall Overcome" which the north side attempted to drown out with a chant of "Kill the bill!"
But maybe Obama didn't see that part. Inside the Renaissance ballroom, the mood was staunchly pro-Obama and pro-health care reform and it was just like 2008 all over again. The crowd was considerably smaller than 100,000, but just as diverse: blacks, whites and Rednecks for Obama, and all of them had paid to be there. A standing room ticket in the back went for $25. Dinner with the president upstairs went for $2,400. As an extra bonus, those who convinced ten of their dearest friends to pay for dinner, too, got a picture of themselves with POTUS.
All this fundraising will benefit McCaskill, who is not due to run for re-election until 2012. But, hey, it's never too early to start building your campaign chest, right? No matter how staunchly you declare that you're against campaigning when there's so much legislative work to be done.
An array of dignitaries introduced one another with fulsome praise, including Governor Jay Nixon, County Executive Charlie Dooley and Mayor Francis Slay, who declared the president Chicago's finest export. Neal E. Boyd
, 2008 winner of America's Got Talent
and a native of Sikeston, Missouri, entertained the crowd with inspirational show tunes.
McCaskill and Obama appeared only 20 minutes behind schedule. McCaskill introduced the president as "a rare and special leader" and predicted he would become "one of the finest presidents in American history."
And then the man himself appeared, to wild applause and a standing ovation. "I got the same reaction at the Republican caucus," he joked, "the same chanting and cheering." Which only made the crowd cheer more. He politely elided the final syllable in "Missouri" so as not to offend either the "Missouree" or "Missourah" contingents and exchanged banter with the crowd about the White House. (Yeah, it's great. Yeah, it's got a bowling alley. No, his bowling hasn't improved.)
"We love you!" screamed a woman from the back of the room.
"I love you back!" Obama declared, without missing a beat. (That exchange happened a lot in 2008.)
And then he got down to business. "My poll numbers have dropped," he said. "People say, 'Ohhh, the sky's fallen!'"
"We got your back!" shouted someone in the audience.
"I feel OK," Obama said. "My job is not being popular. My job is solving problems. It's a greater responsibility. I've got a greater mission."
That mission, of course, is passing the health care bill, which Obama described in less detail than he had in St. Charles
, but not without citing Harry Truman several times. Truman, you may recall, was the first president to propose national health care
back in 1945. He also had low approval ratings and claimed not to care much about public opinion. And, like many of the people in the room, he was a Missourian, though from the other side of the state.
The current bill, should it pass through the Senate, will reform the entire health care system and provide insurance for all, even people with pre-existing conditions. Premiums would go down. Deficits would go down. (At this point, the lights in the hall briefly went down and all heads turned to search for a rogue Tea Partier who had sneaked past security.)
"I don't get worn down," Obama concluded. "I will wear them down. The middle-class in America will have the ability to control its own destiny. I don't worry about the next election. We're just getting started."
The crowd responded with another standing ovation. Although Obama said several times in his 20-minute speech that he cared more about doing what was right rather than what was popular, he still looked rather pleased.