LIVE BLOG: Obama signs economic stimulus bill in Denver

Employees of Namaste Solar applaud as President Barack Obama talks about the stimulus bill in Denver. (Photo/Ernest Luning)

Employees of Namaste Solar applaud as President Barack Obama talks about the stimulus bill in Denver. (Photo/Ernest Luning)

11:00 a.m. – Once again, Denver is the center of the political universe for a day. In roughly a half hour, Air Force One is scheduled to touch down at Buckley Air Force Base to deliver President Barack Obama to Colorado. Obama will be revisiting the city where he accepted the Democratic nomination for president in August to sign the landmark $787 billion economic stimulus package, the first in a series of administration efforts to fix an economy stuck in the worst recession since World War II.

11:30 a.m. – Word is that Vice President Joe Biden’s plane — Air Force Two — has landed at Buckley AFB, followed by Air Force One, carrying the president. It’s the first time in over a decade that both the president and vice president will be in the Denver area at the same time — the last time was when President Clinton and Vice President Gore came to town.

Dignitaries numbering roughly 250 — political heavyweights and representatives of the renewable energy industry — have filled the seats in the large atrium on the northeast corner of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Among them: House Speaker Terrance Carroll, who is Tweeting the event at Senate President Peter Groff represents the museum — or at least it’s in his district — and he and Carroll, whose district is a stone’s throw from today’s events, have been welcoming the crowds all morning with tremendous smiles.

11:37 a.m. – Former Sen. Ken Salazar, who is now Obama’s secretary of the interior, accompanied the president on Air Force One. Salazar has probably been back in Colorado more often as interior secretary than he might have been as senator lately. He was in the state touting economic benefits from the stimulus package this weekend and laid down the law about ethics scandals that rocked Interior under his predecessor a few weeks ago.

In the receiving line to greet Obama at Buckley: Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, Gov. Bill Ritter, Sen. Michael Bennet, Reps. Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter.

Salazar’s older brother, Rep. John Salazar, will be missing the signing today because he’s out of the country. Sen. Mark Udall can’t make it because of a family commitment.

Reps. Betsy Markey and Jared Polis are at the museum.

The state’s two Republican members of Congress — Reps. Mike Coffman and Doug Lamborn — weren’t invited to the bill signing (both voted against the stimulus). Coffman is at the state Capitol deriding the stimulus package along with a gaggle of GOP luminaries, including Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry and state chairman Dick Wadhams. Word has it they plan to roast a pig on the steps of the Capitol (where there’s a marker noting exactly 5,280 feet above sea level) to make their point that the bill contains succulent, juicy — oh, wait, that’s not right, that it contains pork.

The Colorado Independent’s Wendy Norris notes that Obama and Biden seem awfully relaxed for such a monumental occasion. Perhaps it’s the altitude?

11:55 a.m. – A group of people are sitting on risers behind and to the side from the desk where Obama will sign the stimulus bill. They are Namasté Solar — “that’s the entire company,” one of the event volunteers says. The Colorado-based company has 55 employees, among them CEO Blake Jones, who will introduce Obama once he arrives.

The Obama administration is highlighting renewable energy benefits from the stimulus bill by signing it in Denver — originally, before the Senate passed the bill late Friday night, Obama had announced plans to visit Denver today and tour a renewable energy workplace, but once the bill passed the visit turned into a bill-signing.

12:18 p.m. – The presidential motorcade has arrived outside the museum. The pledge of allegiance begins. A rousing Star Spangled Banner that has the crowd stirred.

12:25 p.m. – Secretary Salazar says he’s proud to announce Obama is back in Colorado for the first time as president. “We are at the crossroads of the new energy future,” Salazar says. Colorado will demonstrate to the rest of the world how the country will become energy independent, he says. The Interior Department will be at the forefront of these efforts. “Help is on the way,” Salazar says. At Salazar’s urging, a huge swell of applause from the crowd to welcome Obama to the state.

12:30 p.m. – The national media has arrived. They certainly are sharper dressed than most of the local media. A few seem to be popping their ears — they were at sea level only hours ago.

Prerecorded music playing — “Be kind to your web-footed friends … a duck may be somebody’s mother,” though without those lyrics. Rocky scribe Lynn Bartels wants to know if they’re playing canned music, can’t it at least be “At Last”? Good point.

Now a symphonic version of This Land is Your Land — the Pete Seeger song sung to great effect at the Lincoln Memorial before the inauguration. Though, since it’s instrumental only, can’t tell whether it includes the famous “subversive” verses or not. Probably not.

12:40 p.m. – The sun is certainly obliging today, nearly blinding everyone as it streams in through the glass of the atrium. Obama is touring the roof of the museum — second in the state only to the Colorado Convention Center for the number of solar panels up there. If it had been as gloomy today as it was over the weekend, those panels would have been dormant, but it’s a bright day today and the electric meter must be spinning. Think anyone will try to fashion a metaphor out of that?

Gov. Bill Ritter introduces President Barack Obama before he signs the stimulus bill in Denver. (Photo/Ernest Luning)

Gov. Bill Ritter introduces President Barack Obama before he signs the stimulus bill in Denver. (Photo/Ernest Luning)

12:45 p.m. – Gov. Bill Ritter welcomes Obama and Biden to Colorado, says the state is the best place where the president could sign the stimulus bill because Colorado is “at the heart of the new energy economy,” a phrase that gets quite a workout from the governor. Legend has it, Obama added the phrase to his speech accepting the nomination after hearing it from Ritter.

Ritter introduces Biden to great, rousing cheers from the crowd.

Biden thanks Hickenlooper for his hospitality and jokes about recently working for Ken Salazar in the Senate. Zeroes in on jobs as the most immediate effect of the stimulus bill. Also puts in a plug for FasTracks and other rail system improvements in the bill. (Biden, who has taken a train ride home to Delaware throughout his Senate career, is one of the more famous train passengers in the land.)

“Less than a month into his presidency, the president is about to sign into law what I believe is a landmark achievement,” Biden says. He thanks Obama for what he’s done — and the crowd agrees with sustained, heavy applause.

Biden introduces CEO Blake Jones of Namasté Solar — pronounces the name, a Sanskrit word which is a bit hard for East Coast easterners to say correctly, a bit out of wonk and says Jones can call him “Bidden” if he mispronounces the name of his company. Blake takes him up on it.

Some wags are already saying Jones is the Democrats’ answer to Joe the Plumber — Blake the Solar Engineer.

1:00 p.m. – Jones says the stimulus bill will allow his company to increase workers by 20 percent this year, 40 percent in 2010. “There are thousands of small businesses just like ours that will be doing the same thing,” he says. Solar trade association estimates 69,000 new jobs this year, almost double that number over the next two years. Not just engineers — installers, including roofers and others who have lost work as construction industry has gone in the tank.

1:15 p.m. – Obama takes the lectern (decked out with the presidential seal) to thunderous applause. The president departs briefly from his prepared remarks to acknowledge a bevy of Democrats in the hall and a few who couldn’t make it. Working his way through an admittedly tangled group of names — from Secretary of State Bernie Buescher through the Hickenloopers and Perlmutters, Obama finally stumbles on the congresswoman in whose district he now stands. It’s Diana DeGette, rhymes with “get,” not “jet.” A few audible cringes from the crowd at this but quickly Obama is on to bigger things.

Obama sings the praises of the stimulus bill he is about to sign. It’s not just creating jobs, Obama says, enumerating the familiar 3.5 million jobs “created or saved” over the next two years, the package will do this by “putting Americans to work doing the work that America needs done,” he says.

The bill includes billions for 21st century information and transportation infrastructure, “remaking the American landscape with the largest new investment in our nation’s infrastructure since Eisenhower built an interstate highway system in the 1950s.” And we all know how much that changed the face of America, from drive-in restaurants to suburban sprawl. Can we expect a similar jolting change after the stimulus bill’s infrastructure goes into place?

More calls to bring the nation into the 21st century with the “largest investment in education in our nation’s history,” including training for science and math teachers (more echoes of Eisenhower-era initiatives that shaped generations to come), money to keep schoolteachers from being laid off as state and local governments strain under the recession, and $2,500 tax credits to help middle class families send kids to college.

Health care gets its due next. The stimulus plan includes money to modernize health records, which will save money and save lives, Obama says. There’s also money to extend coverage to many who would otherwise lose it in the recession, and funds to help unemployed workers pay to extend the coverage they’d had. Add that all up and throw in the SCHIP expansion passed by the new Congress and “we’ve done more in 30 days to advance the cause of health reform than this country has done in a decade,” Obama says to enthusiastic whoops and hollers.

Energy is next. The stimulus targets money to renewable energy companies, including Namaste Solar (Obama pronounces the company’s name flawlessly, earning big smiles from the employees with a ringside seat). There’s more talk about a topic we’ll be hearing plenty about in the near future — the smart electrical grid, built to replace the wires “that date back to Thomas Edison,” Obama says. What good does it do to produce wind in North Dakota — or Colorado on this blustery day, though Obama doesn’t mention that — without being able to move the electricity to urban areas? Obama singles out Boulder as the city “on pace” to soon have the nation’s first smart grid — another reason signing the bill in Colorado is rich in symbolism for the new administration.

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Ernest Luning

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