June 30, 2010

Analysis: Obama returns to Racine with talk and glamour, but little substance

What could he say?

President Barack Obama spoke for an hour Wednesday at Memorial Hall convincing a partisan crowd of some thousand people that the economy was recovering and the country was headed in the right direction. Whether successful or not was irrelevant.

The starry eyed crowd held their cameras high and gave celebrity cheers. Afterward, people had little to say about policy, the country's direction or even about what the president had said. It was more about the "experience" of being in his "presence."

The afternoon talk was billed as a "town hall forum," which it really wasn't. The president took a few questions from the audience, but his answers took so long it drained any sense of interplay with the audience. Snappier answers would have allowed for more questions and more of a sense of a forum. But that isn't what this visit was about.

Tucked underneath the smooth delivery and warm reception was a political message. Things may be bad, Obama said, but Republicans will make them worse. In the heart of his opening remarks he lambasted Republicans for being out of touch and aligned with the super rich. He singled out one Republican Congressman for apologizing to BP for the U.S. forcing the company to setup a $20 billion fund to pay victims of the oil spill in the Gulf. Another Republican was chastised for suggesting a proposed overhaul of the financial regulatory system was akin to killing an ant with a nuclear bomb.

The attacks played well with the audience and helped underscore Obama's, and Democrats', message. You think we're bad? You should see the other guy.

Overall, it was a different feel from candidate Obama's visit to Racine in February 2008. Obama joked at the start of his talk that he had a lot less gray hair back then, and no doubt that's true. When you're a candidate all  you have to do is make promises. When you're president, you're expected to deliver.

Leading into Obama's Racine visit was a looming question: What's he going to say?

I thought he'd use the visit to highlight some local companies and bring some needed positive attention to a city that's struggling with unemployment, foreclosures and public education. On this point, he was oddly silent. In past talks he'd taken a few minutes to acknowledge local businesses that were models of success in this economy. There are certainly good examples like Ruud Lighting, Modine and its fuel cell technology, and SC Johnson and its commitment to green causes.

But a visit like this isn't meant for local consumption. The key people at the speech were the national media relaying images of the president visiting a downtrodden city to deliver messages of, well, hope.

So we all feel good that the president put us on the map for a day or two, and it's fun to see one of the world's largest celebrities talk in your hometown. It's too bad he brought little more than images and political posturing to a city in need of Obama's elusive campaign promise: change.

'Don't tell Michelle' I want a brat, Obama told the crowd. (P.S. He also had kringle.)

And then it was time to say goodbye...