You can’t say President Obama isn’t optimistic. Though Mecklenburg County — Charlotte, in particular — made the difference in his narrow North Carolina victory in 2008, the president this week brought his bus tour to the state’s smaller towns. Why does he keep returning? It’s the people, he said. “They are gracious and they are kind, and even the folks who don't vote for me are nice.” With a year of battles with Congress and a tough 2012 race ahead of him, those people are also very important. Next September will find the president in the friendlier climate of Charlotte for the Democratic Convention, but for now he's venturing into areas such as Wilkes County, where John McCain piled up a big majority in 2008.
At a packed West Wilkes High School gym in Millers Creek on Monday, Obama touted his American Jobs Act, which he said he will chop into “bite-sized pieces” now that the total $447 billion package was rejected by Congress. “If they vote against these proposals, if they vote against taking steps that we know will put Americans back to work,” he said, “they’ve got to explain not to me, but to you, why they’re doing it.”
The president focused on education and the federal funds that helped schools like West Wilkes when local and state money disappeared. That point was driven home in his introduction by superintendent Steven Laws, who thanked the president for the more than $6 million in the first stimulus package that helped county schools; despite cutbacks, Laws said, he hasn’t had to lay off one person.
The scene was a movie-like picture of small-town America, with its draped flags and performances by dancers and the school band, and a soundtrack of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “America the Beautiful” with some in the crowd of about 2,000 singing along. (Democrats are not going to concede values of patriotism and community pride.)
But struggles haven’t escaped the peaceful setting. Toni Boles, waiting in line to hear the president she supports, lost her office manager job two years ago when her company closed; her unemployment benefits are running out. “He’s really doing the best job, considering what he’s been left with,” said the 36-year-old from Roaring River, N.C. After his speech, Boles said the president gave her “clarity on what the jobs bill entailed.” She said she realized he will have to compromise but hoped “key provisions” that will help those who are struggling can be kept intact. Boles’ parents, who live on Red, White and Blue Road, stood with her. Her mother, Kay Walker is retired from the Tyson factory; dad Ray Walker said “if the Congress works with him a little, this country would progress.”
That doesn’t seem likely. Even this presidential tour — with a route that started in Asheville and ends in another battleground state, Virginia — had Democratic and Republican officials arguing whether or not it should be considered a campaign trip.
Some would “ascribe political motives to every single thing the president does,” said Josh Earnest, the administration’s principal deputy press secretary, in a conference call before the trip. He said the jobs bill is one both parties would have supported in the past.
Not so, said RNC Chair Reince Priebus, in another call joined by North Carolina GOP Chair Robin Hayes and his Virginia counterpart Pat Mullins. “It’s amazing that he always seems to find himself in battleground states,” said Priebus. “Apparently it’s the only place in America that he seems to care about.” Hayes talked about the idea of “Towbama.” “We have offered and he has rejected to tow his bus back to Washington so that he can get on the world’s most expensive corporate jet, fly back to his office and really go to work helping this economy.” Hayes took swipes at Gov. Bev Perdue and Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, as well.
The exchange previewed the competing narratives that will continue up to and through the 2012 Charlotte convention.
In Millers Creek, the politicians who greeted the president were the friendly ones. The chair of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, Jennifer Roberts, was there, though it was a different part of the state in the spotlight. Loretta Clawson, mayor of Boone and an early supporter of Obama in 2008, said that while the construction industry is in her region is hurting, her college town is doing fine economically. “We’ll work extra hard” for Obama in 2012, she said.
The crowds at West Wilkes — the ones willing to line up in 80-plus degree sun — were happy that the president chose to spotlight the pleasures and problems of Wilkes County. Brenda Moore, a retired English teacher at Wilkes Community College, said she must have taught half the people standing there. She had traveled to N.C. State in Raleigh to hear President Obama a month ago. “I am so in harmony with him,” she said, while conceding she avoids talking politics with neighbors who may not agree. “He’s not Santa Claus,” Moore said. “He can’t do everything” without cooperation from Congress.
Deborah Englebert was happy for her 14-year-old son, Joshua, a saxophonist in the band who got to play for the president. Son Jacob, 9, had made his way to the front. Englebert, who was born and grew up in Texas, said she picked corn in the fields as a 4-year-old and knows about hard work and struggles. The customer service interpreter for a cell phone company speaks English, Spanish, German and Italian. “He has the right idea,” she said of President Obama. “People from the far left and the far right need to forget if you’re Democratic or Republican.”
Despite all the small-town attention this week, Charlotte needn’t feel ignored. On Monday, as the president talked jobs in Wilkes County, Democrats named a chief diversity officer, Chicago native Greg Hinton. Hinton, who starts Monday, will work for the national party and advise the convention committee on diversity staffing and minority procurement, something that has been a concern of local minority businesses.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Root, NPR, Creative Loafing and the Nieman Watchdog blog. Her “Keeping It Positive” segment airs Wednesdays at 7:10 on TV’s Fox News Rising Charlotte, and she was national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.
Here's a video clip of Obama, explaining why he stops in North Carolina so much, courtesy of www.digtriad.com: