DENVER – President Barack Obama gave a speech on middle class economics today from a shady grove in Denver’s Cheesman Park. The event, limited to roughly 100 invited members of the public, comes at the end of Obama’s whirlwind tour of Colorado’s capital city, where he shot pool with Governor John Hickenlooper but was noticeably snubbed by nearly every member of the Colorado delegation in a tight race this fall, except Congressman Ed Perlmutter who disembarked from Air Force One with the president yesterday evening. Even Senator Mark Udall, for whom Obama raised funds on this trip, avoided the junket altogether.
Before a crowd of campaign volunteers and folks who have reached out to thank him for various policies, Obama laid out what he called an “opportunity agenda,” touching on the need for affordable and accessible child care, preschool, college tuition and job retraining. The president particularly emphasized that the 13 states which have raised the minimum wage to $10.10 or more since he called for it in his State of the Union address have seen more job growth, not less.
And, consistent with a theme of increasingly partisan language around Congressional gridlock, Obama took a few shots at Republicans — particularly those threatening to sue him for taking action on issues such as same-sex marriage benefits via executive order.
“They have a plan to sue me for taking executive actions that are within my authority while they do nothing. I have a better idea, they should do something. Rather than engage in political stunts that waste time and taxpayer money, let’s do things together like build roads and give America a raise,” Obama said to wild applause.
The president quickly pivoted to the Democratic Party’s platform this election cycle with a focus on what he called non-partisan “economic patriotism.” Obama called for fewer tax breaks for millionaires and more for middle class families with kids in college; investment in roads and bridges; access to high quality preschool for every American four-year old; and job retraining for those who’ve seen their employment shipped overseas. He defended the notion that health care for everyone is a good thing as is equal pay regardless of gender, a minimum wage that keeps families out of poverty and workers’ rights that would allow employees time to take care of sick family members.
“That’s not radical, that’s not un-American, it’s right. It’s what build this country,” Obama asserted.
He concluded the speech imploring the crowd to resist cynicism and disengagement, despite what he acknowledged as a “frustrating” situation in Washington D.C.
“Cynicism is a popular choice these days, it’s what passes off as wisdom,” Obama said to laughs from the crowd. “But cynicism isn’t wise and remember that it is a choice. Cynicism is a choice. Hope is a better choice.”
Fred and Karin Conseen, who live in a working class suburb of Denver and volunteer for a range of Democratic campaigns including both Obama and Udall’s, said it meant a lot to them to hear the president encourage engagement, action and hope.
The Conseens nearly lost their house back in the Recession-era wave of foreclosures but were able to keep it because of the refinancing program championed by Obama. Both middle-aged, they have also re-enrolled in school, looking to finish their college degrees.
“Because of what Obama was able to do capping student loan repayments at 10 percent of your income, we were encouraged to go into it knowing we won’t be buried in student debt at 65,” said Karin Conseen. “I have a whole career ahead of me and now I have the opportunity to repay my student loans without jeopardizing my future. That’s the greatest gift.”
Many in the hand-picked crowd were, like the Conseens, long-time Democratic activists and Obama-supporters. It was the kind of gathering that hissed when Obama called out House Republicans for failing to pass immigration reform this session and cheered heartily at mention of the Affordable Care Act.
Outside the low gates of the private event, supporters and protestors alike gathered with hopes of seeing Obama, or, as in the case of 18-year-old student and Denver resident Alaa Zeitawi, being seen by the president.
Together with a group of young women, some wearing hijab, Zeitawi came to Cheesman park today not to hear the president talk economics but to ask him to take action on rapidly escalating violence in the Israel-Palestine region. She wants Obama to intercede and stop Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, which CNN reports have killed at least 19 people today.
“It’s like watching the Holocaust on replay. They have people on lockdown so they can’t leave the city and then they just bomb them,” Zeitawi said over chants of “Palestine will never die,” and “Israel is an apartheid state,” in the background.
“This means everything to me: my family, my life, my country.”
So far, Obama has urged both Israeli and Palestinian forces to exercise “reasonableness and restraint, not vengeance and retribution.”
View a slideshow of the event here:
[Photos by Tessa Cheek]