The last time I saw Barack Obama in person was on the eve of the 2008 election, when he held a massive campaign rally at the BankAtlantic Center. I call it a campaign rally, but it was more of a pre-coronation ceremony. John McCain’s shame-laden defeat was all but assured at that point, no matter how much the cable-news networks insisted on pretending the election would be an epic contest. Of course, much has changed in the ensuing years. Obama no longer represents the hope of angry liberals boiling from eight years of Bushian ineptitude. If anything, liberals are as angry with Obama as anyone these days. His appearance this past Friday at Miami Central High School with Jeb Bush says everything you need to know about how he sees himself in regard to the previous administration. The fact that Obama was here to speak about education and shared the stage with Florida’s own proto-Scott Walker even as teachers fought for their livelihoods in Wisconsin only added to the oddity.
It also settled once and for all the question of whether Jeb will run for president, in 2012, 2016 or ever. A Republican primary opponent need only replay clips from this appearance to cast Jeb’s hypothetical presidential run into outer darkness. As for Obama, liberal angst over the man neither begins nor ends at education. There’s the failure to close Guantánamo, though that was chiefly due to a bunch of oh-so-tough, why-do-you-hate-our-troops Republicans suddenly turning into gibbering jellyfish upon learning that detainees might go to supermax prisons in the States.
Many liberals also were upset over the lack of action on gay rights, especially the failure to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, though those critiques have largely been reduced to, “What took you so long?” which is rarely a valid complaint in politics.
There were the compromises that pleased no one, health care being chief among them. The public option, liberals’ fallback, compromise position from their Medicare for all desires, disintegrated early in the negotiations. As much as conservatives loathe Obamacare, liberals wrote it off as a giveaway to the insurance industry.
Then, of course, there were the goddamned wars. Fifty thousand troops still in Iraq, despite that war’s alleged ending, and the ongoing horror show in Afghanistan, which left nine Afghan children dead at the hands of our hardware just three days before Obama’s appearance in Miami. Who does approve of this guy these days? His approval numbers have hovered at or just below 50 percent since September 2009, but who are these people? Approval of the president seems more a factor of disapproval of Republicans than anything else. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. I don’t know what I stand for, but I know I’m against the troglodytes with the tea bags and the Gadsden flags. And if they hate Obama, well, he must be our man, regardless of the actual policy changes — or, in the case of war and education, lack thereof.
One thing that surprisingly hadn’t changed since before Obama was elected was the ease of entry. I pulled into the parking lot at Miami Central, showed my ID to someone at the gate who checked my name off a list, parked my car, showed my ID to another person who checked me off an identical list, and then emptied my pockets before a Miami-Dade Sheriff’s deputy ran a metal-detecting wand over me. After that, I got my things and headed inside. The process was exactly the same as it had been at the BankAtlantic Center. I had been expecting something more — bomb-sniffing dogs, people demanding to know why I had visited Istanbul a couple of years ago or something — but that was it. Inside the gymnasium, even the pre-event PA music included some of the same songs as it had during the campaign. Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” blared over the speakers as I made my way inside.
One set of bleachers had been pulled out, occupied by Miami Central students, most of them wearing the school’s particular shade of green. (Go Rockets!) The other bleachers had been stacked away against the wall to make room for the press, who sat at tables, looking bored. Finally, out on the basketball court, rows of seats had been set up for the audience — teachers, principals, Democratic apparatchiks and the like. After an hour of playing Live Poker Pro on my phone (I play as Danny Aces, look for me on the large tables), I knew the president was about to get to the podium when I spotted the heavyweights making their way to their seats. Namely, newly minted Rep. Frederica Wilson jostled through the audience, as easy to pick out in a crowd as always, given her notably unusual fashion sense. On this occasion, she wore a white, straw cowboy hat covered in black sequins with a matching black-and-white dress. At the same time, the national press came pouring in the back door. But unlike in 2008, I didn’t spot any of the celeb-journalists in the mix. No Candy Crowleys or Richard Wolffes. Just a bunch of bored, middle-aged lifers in the ever-diminishing world of print journalism, riding the dinosaur to its inevitable end. After them came a small army of sheriff’s deputies and Secret Service agents, who stood guard by the back door.
I sat alone at the table closest to that door, ridiculously conspicuous among the staid press corps in goat-skin cowboy boots and a purple shirt, surrounded by edgy security types with military haircuts, earpieces and Oakley shades, along with Lord-knows-what hardware under the jackets. But this wasn’t worrisome under the circumstances. I was, after all, on the list.
Jeb Bush and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took the stage first, with Jeb stepping up to the podium. He gave a quick speech about working together, accountability for schools and threw out a “give the teachers a hand” applause line, despite his entire tenure in Tallahassee comprising a protracted war on Florida’s teachers. He then introduced the president, who came onstage to roaring applause, got out one line — “It is good to be here today” — and was then drowned out with further adulation. He thanked Jeb, saying he was “best known as the brother of Marvin Bush,” and lauded the “lowest unemployment rate in two years.” He did not cite the specific rate that had come out earlier that day, 8.9 percent, probably because it’s not exactly a breathtaking number. He mentioned the necessity of high-speed rail, just after Gov. Rick Scott had officially turned down $2.5 billion in federal money for high-speed rail earlier in the day. But mostly, he talked about education, citing Miami Central as a great turnaround story, the school having gone from a 36 percent graduation rate to 63 percent. He proposed 100,000 new math and science teachers over the next decade. He asserted that, despite the tough times, he wouldn’t cut education. “I am not willing to give up on any child,” he said as he wrapped up the speech, “I am not willing to accept failure in America.”
Massive applause, and it sure does sound good. I realize now that Barack Obama is the Grateful Dead of American politicians. You can’t look at the recorded work — the policy initiatives or studio albums — you just have to concentrate on the live experience. And then, somehow, it all makes sense.
Contact Dan Sweeney at email@example.com.
This story was originally published March 8, 2011.Copyright © 2015, CT Now