University of Vermont

President Obama Ignites Crowd at UVM

Obama at UVM
The president of the United States addresses a crowd of thousands at UVM. (Photo: Sally McCay)

“Goosebumps.” It’s the feeling sophomore Arline Weaver uses to describe President Barack Obama’s oratorical impact. It may well define the emotional tingle felt by thousands of Vermonters who lined roadways to catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade, who noted the significance of secret service agents standing in solemn attention on the roof of Patrick Gym, who snapped photos of Air Force One as it took off over Living/Learning and especially the estimated 4,000 or so people who stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the Athletic Campus Multipurpose Facility offering up thundering cheers as the president of the United States took the stage on March 30.

“It was 17 years of pent-up desire,” laughs Garrison Nelson, professor of political science, referring to the crowd’s response to the first presidential visit to Vermont since Clinton in 1995. “They were thrilled by that, as well they should have been.”

Acknowledging that long stretch, longer than any other state, Obama tells the audience, “Today we are going to reset the clock.”

The stop here, the first on campus, in fact, since President Ford in 1974, was hardly to stump for the state’s three electoral votes, says Nelson. Beyond fundraising, Nelson calls the trip a nod to Vermont’s loyalty – second in its support for Obama in 2008 behind only his home state of Hawaii – and the speech a “rally of the faithful.”

For the people

“It’s good to be at UVM – go Catamounts,” the president told a diverse audience from on-campus and off, elderly couples, students, staff, faculty and families, many having queued up hours earlier waiting their turn through the tight security.

“The line was insane when I got there at 11:45, wrapped around from the front of the gym all the way around and out into the fields,” says Weaver. “It was pretty crazy but definitely worth it. I feel like this is the first time in my life where the election actually matters to me.”

Given the number of young children, legs dangling over a parent’s shoulders to afford a view of the stage, voting age was not a prerequisite for interest.

“He’s a really funny and smart public speaker,” says ten-year-old Silas Brown, who left school at noon and rode his bike up the hill with his family, including his six-year-old sister, to be part of a little moment in history. “A lot of people were cheering whenever he said something, so I think people really believe in what he was saying. And he really believes in what he was saying. I think he’s been a really good and strong president.”

Silas also enjoyed Obama’s quick-footed banter with the crowd, referring to a moment when someone shouted, “Love you!” and was met with a snappy, “Love you back!”

For Silas’ dad, UVM science writer Joshua Brown, giving his children the chance to reflect upon the office of the president and witness the person sitting in that office was both a true civics lesson and a chance to make an indelible memory, recalling when he and his brother both shook hands with Vice President Walter Mondale, absorbing the paradox of closeness to a figure so ultimately removed.

“There’s the pageantry of someone in high office coming to our little state along with the mobilization of force – seeing the airport shutdown, the highway shutdown, the guys in black jackets – it’s impressive for us as adults and more so for a kid,” says Brown. “And the whole sense of political theater, the basic historical themes politicians use to move a crowd, I think it’s good for them to have exposure to that.” 

Rolling up sleeves

As a prelude to the president’s speech, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals kicked off the rock star momentum, followed by remarks from Gov. Peter Shumlin as well as Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders. Local business owner Jeanne Morrissey '81, president of J.A. Morrissey Construction Company, introduced Obama, first speaking in praise of the administration’s stimulus package, which she says saved her employees’ jobs when business volume was cut by half in 2008.

“(Morrissey’s) talk wasn’t like that of a politician who would typically take that role,” says Nelson, “filled with hollow praise. It gave it authenticity.” 

When it was finally the president’s turn to deliver his message, he suggested to the crowd that maybe he should just quit while he was ahead, seeing clearly that he had them at “Hello, Vermont!” But then he took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and went to work making his case for reelection.

Obama outlined the achievements of his first term, listing signing a law on pay equity for women, putting General Motors  “back on top as the world’s number one automaker,” healthcare reform, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” weakening al Qaeda with the death of Osama bin Laden and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

In laying out his goals, the president hit on themes that were likely to resonate among many on a campus such as this one. “An economy built to last is one that supports scientists and researchers… whether we’re talking about stem cell research or climate change, we don’t need science deniers,” he said. “We need people to understand that America has always succeeded because of our belief in science, our investment in research.”

As an education major, Weaver says she was excited to hear his views on granting schools the flexibility to teach with creativity and passion and hiring and rewarding great teachers.

Of the other side, Obama drew sharp lines: “Their philosophy is simple,” he says, “You are on your own… If you’re born into poverty, lift yourself up with your own bootstraps even if you don’t have boots… That’s the cramped, narrow conception they have of liberty. They are wrong.” He also drew laughs with the notion that Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, could not win his party’s primary nomination today. 

In both acknowledging disappointments and calling for increased support, Obama reminded the audience, “I did say back in 2008, real change – big change – it’s hard. It takes time. It takes more than a single term and more than a single president. What it takes is ordinary citizens who are committed to keep fighting and to keep pushing, and inching us closer and closer and closer to our country’s highest ideals. We will,” he said before closing and walking off stage to shake hands in the crowd, “finish what we started in 2008.”

It’s no surprise that the campaign can color Vermont blue. But watching Obama raise the roof – along with an estimated $750,000 – maybe the president will stop by more often.

The event was sponsored and paid for by the Obama Victory Fund 2012, a joint fundraising committee authorized by Obama for America and the Democratic National Committee and does not reflect an endorsement of any particular candidate or political party by the University of Vermont.