April 6, 2012

President Barack Obama at Southern Maine Community College on March 30, 2012.  Photo by Ramona du Houx

The roar from an enthusiastic crowd thundered throughout Southern Maine’s Community College gym the instant the president took the stage. That enthusiasm and excitement continued throughout his speech.

“Hello Maine!” started President Barack Obama.

Organizers said there were just under 2,000 people anticipating this moment, packed into the Hutchinson Union. Their excitement was palpable as cheers, whistles and applause filled the gym.

“Over the last two years, businesses have added nearly four million new jobs. Our manufacturers are creating jobs for the first time since the ’90s. Our economy is getting stronger. The recovery is accelerating. And that means the last thing we can afford to do right now is to go back to the very same policies that got us into this mess in the first place. Right?” asked President Obama.

He began his remarks by reminding the audience about what they had accomplished working with him since the 2008 campaign.

“You shared a vision about who we are as a people. And that vision said that we don’t just leave people to fend for themselves. We don’t just let the powerful play by their own rules. It was a vision of America where we’re all in it together. Where everybody who works hard has the chance to get ahead — no matter what they look like, no matter where they come from, not just those at the very top, but everybody — that was the recipe for American success,” said the president.

He said that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill he signed into law — a law that says a woman deserves an equal day’s pay for an equal day’s work — represents the “kind of change we believed in.”

He repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, ended combat operations in Iraq, rid the world of Osama bin Laden, increased funding and services for veterans, is transitioning the war in Afghanistan and beginning to bring troops home. The president mentioned how he rescued the American auto industry, raised fuel-efficiency standards for cars, lowered interest rates for student loans, increased Pell grants, and lowered taxes for small businesses 17 times. He also championed the Affordable Care Act, his health-care reform law.

“As a consequence of what you did, 2.5 million young people have health insurance now that didn’t have it before, because they’re staying on their parent’s plans. Millions of seniors are now paying less for prescription drugs. Insurance companies can’t deny you coverage right at the time when you need it. People are getting preventive care that they weren’t getting before. We’re going to make sure the people with preexisting conditions are finally able to get coverage. That’s what change is,” he said.

When Obama came to office, he had to turn the economy around to advert a depression. Then the economy was losing 750,000 jobs per month; now it is adding more than 200,000 jobs per month. With his American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, emergency first responders were kept on the job, as well as teachers. There was investment in research and development to grow the innovation economy, and transportation projects put people to work while rebuilding American’s infrastructure. Also, tax breaks were given to most Americans.

Throughout the speech, the crowd loudly chanted, “Four more years!”

He praised several past Republican presidents for making investments in America that benefited the country as a whole and said that in order for America to move forward we need to work together in that same spirit.

“The first Republican president, Lincoln, made investments in helping to forge the Transcontinental Railroad and started the American Academy of Sciences and land-grant colleges — because he wasn’t just thinking about now; he was thinking about the greatness of this country in the future,” he said.

The president also mentioned that Teddy Roosevelt called for a progressive income tax, Dwight Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System, and that many Republicans united with FDR in Congress to establish the G.I. Bill.

“Our politics may be divided,” he said, “but most Americans still understand we’ve got a stake in each other. It doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from. We rise and fall as one nation, one people.”

Obama pledged his continued support for research and investment in green energy measures, reinvigorating America’s manufacturing base, rewarding companies that create jobs in the U.S. and punishing those businesses that outsource jobs.

“We can fight for an economy that works for everybody — an economy that’s built to last, an economy built on American manufacturing and American science and American energy and American education that makes sure our kids have the skills they need,” he said.

He explained the tax system that he has proposed, which would help to reduce the deficit while maintaining necessary programs every state needs.

“If you make $250,000 a year or less — like 98 percent of American families — then your taxes don’t need to go up. Folks are still struggling,” he said. “But if you’re doing really well, you can do a little bit more. Because if somebody like me gets a tax break that I don’t need and the country can’t afford, then one of two things is going to happen. Either it adds to our deficit, or it takes something away from somebody else — that veteran who needs services for his PTSD after he served our country, that student that’s trying to afford getting their college degree, that senior who’s already having a tough time paying for their prescription drugs.”

He said the election offers two competing visions for America. The Republican vision wants to return to economic policies that would let Wall Street play by its own rules and allow insurance companies to roll back health coverage.

“The idea that you would keep on doing the same thing over and over again, even though it’s been proven not to work — that’s a sign of madness,” said Obama, refereeing to the trickle-down economics of previous Republican administrations.

Then he restated his vision — the same vision he shared with those who elected him.

“We believe in the basic promise that if you work hard, you can do well enough to raise your family and own a home and send your kids to college and put a little away for retirement,” he said. “This is the defining issue of our time at a make-or-break moment for the middle class in this country. Who is going to be fighting for you — that’s what this is about.”

The applause and cheers from people in the audience, who each paid at least $44 to $500 to attend the event, at times drowned out the president’s speech. Obama responded enthusiastically to Maine’s welcome and concluded his speech by asking for continued support.

“If you’re willing to keep pushing with me and keep fighting with me, keep reaching for that vision that we believed in, then I promise you we won’t just win another election, but we will finish what we started in 2008. And we will remind the world just why it is that the United States of America is the greatest nation on Earth,” he said.

Katie Glencross, a political science major at the University of Maine, with others had waited in line since noon to see the president. Obama appeared on stage just after 5 p.m.

“He’s done so much for the nation and the world,” said Glencross. “The first bill he signed gave women equal pay for the same job. My friends and I am fired up to help him get reelected.”

Nicholas Palmer, a senior at SMCC and an avid supporter of the president, said, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be here. He made history as the first African American to become president. I love the job he’s been doing. America is respected around the globe again. He needs four more years. I’m so excited!”

As the crowd swelled, speakers reminded them about some of the president’s achievements.

Rep. Chellie Pingree recounted a telephone conversation with the president that she received just after being elected to the House of Representatives for the first time. Recalling his victory in Maine in 2008 and hers, he told her, “Maine was pretty good to both of us.” Pingree told the crowd, “We want to make sure that Maine is good to president Barack Obama one more time.”

Obama won Maine’s four electoral votes, beating Sen. John McCain 56.6 percent to 40.5 percent.

Pingree told the audience she understood that many of them had hoped for a single-payer health-care system or one with a public option, but she was extremely happy with the Affordable Care Act. “We can’t let the Supreme Court take away that,” she said. The congresswomen spent a day listening to the arguments before the court. “I can’t tell you how scary it is to see justices who don’t belong there making decisions about even the incremental changes we have in front of us.”

Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who until last year was Obama’s Middle East envoy, also rallied the crowd. Mitchell emphatically said the Supreme Court should stay out of politics. He noted that the individual mandate, which only taxpayers would have to pay for, was originally a Republican concept.

“They have moved so far from the mainstream center of American politics that they’re now attacking their own ideas,” said Mitchell.

He noted that America’s image internationally has changed dramatically.

“For ten long years, Republicans talked tough about Osama bin Laden,” said Mitchell. “Obama said little, and then he killed him, and there, in a nutshell, is the difference between a man of bluster and a man of action.”

He said that the president’s policies have turned the recession around. Now the economy is growing with new jobs added every month.

“In November the American people will have a clear choice: To continue the policies of the president, which are steadily restoring our economic and financial health, or go back to the very politics which caused the problems in the first place,” said Mitchell.

Richard Schwartz, 48, of Woolwich, who was laid off as a boat builder in 2009 and was retrained by Coastal Counties Workforce Inc. as part of a federally funded program, introduced the president. Schwartz now has a job at Kestrel Aircraft at Brunswick Landing.

“The president believes in workers like me, and that’s why I’m here today,” said Schwartz. “I got the training I needed because of the Recovery Act.”

Those lucky enough to shake the president’s hand came away in awe. The atmosphere was energized.

“It was a high point in our life to hear the president speak. It was that good. His speech was powerful and full of hope. He emphasized education as our future, protecting our fragile environment, and fairness for all — taxing according to our ability to pay,” said Joe and Carole Long. “We felt that we were in the presence of greatness.”

After the SMCC event, the president attended a dinner at the Portland Museum of Art, where about 130 donors paid a minimum of $5,000 a plate.

Among some Maine dignitaries attending, were former Sen. George Mitchell, former Governor John E. Baldacci, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, her daughter Hannah Pingree, who was speaker of Maine’s House of Representatives, U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud and Small Business Administrator Karen Mills.

Bonnie Porta and Karen Harris, co-chairwomen of Obama’s state fundraising effort, accompanied the president into the museum’s Great Hall. The donors gave Obama a standing ovation as Harris introduced him.

Porta said the president wants the same things she does and has the same values of empathy, equity, empowerment, and opportunity for all.

“Mr. President, we all want you to know here in Maine that we are in your corner, we have your back, we’re here when you need us,” she said.

The president joked that part of the reason he came to Maine was that the first lady had such a good time when she made a fundraising trip to the state six months ago. He said she told him that “they all thought I was so much better than you.”

The president spoke of the stark differences between Democrats and Republicans, the need and to continue to progress the country in the right direction in order to sustain economic growth.

“We probably have not seen an election where the contrast is that sharp between the two parties as it is in this election,” said the president.

After his remarks, the press were asked to leave and Obama answered questions.

“He hit it out of the park,” said Governor Baldacci. “He talked about global warming, the use of the military, health care, and jobs. His remarks were very clear, passionate, and comprehensive. He took questions from the audience and answered them effectively.”

The White House Press Pool contributed to this report.