Addressing 5,000 people on the UVM campus in Burlington on a sunny Friday afternoon, Obama talked about how to rebuild the economy, attacked the opposition's "cramped, narrow conception of liberty," and previewed his pitch for re-election. And since it was Vermont, at one point he proposed using half the money currently being spent on war to reduce the debt, and the other half for "some nation building right here at home."
As he reminded an excited crowd estimated at close to 5,000, the last president to visit Vermont was Bill Clinton in 1995. Since 1988 the state has consistently voted for the Democratic candidate for president, which takes it out of the swing state category and has made presidential visits a rare occurrence.
Nevertheless, “We decided that today we are going to reset the clock,” Obama said. Moments later, as if to emphasize the change of mood, he removed his jacket. From then on he seemed to know he was on friendly ground and frequently showed it, at times leaning on the lecturn as he paused to stress a point or take in a reaction.
The president began with a plea. He had come to Vermont not just for help getting elected, Obama admitted, but “because the country needs your help.” Flattering as that was to those in the audience, most knew that the primary reason for the visit was to help raise money for Vermont Democrats. Most of those who heard him speak live paid between $44 and $250 for tickets.
The event also served as a reminder of why Obama remains a compelling, effective candidate. His campaign rhetoric has shifted from the “one America” theme that brought him to national prominence in 2004, or the “change we can believe in” of 2008. But populist calls for fairness and cooperation were just as enthusiastically received in Vermont.
Recalling the high hopes of the 2008 campaign, Obama talked about “a shared vision for America. It wasn’t a vision where everybody has to fend for themselves,” he said. This set the dynamic for his talk – enduring optimism about what people can do by working together, combined with a sharp critique -- and occasional ridicule -- directed at the GOP.
He never mentioned Mitt Romney, or any Republican, by name. But his basic argument was that “this is not just the usual, run of the mill political debate. This is the defining issue of our time, a make or break moment for the middle class.”
The line received a huge reaction, almost as large as one after mentioning the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. “For the first time in history you don’t have to hide who you love in order to serve the country,” he said to sustained applause.
The Pitch for a Second TermThe narrative Obama is developing for the fall campaign, regardless of what happens on “the other side,” is a choice between slow, steady change and going backward. Claiming four million new jobs and an accelerating recovery, he argues that “the last thing we can do is go back to the policies that got us in the mess.”
Among the accomplishments mentioned in Burlington were equal pay for equal work legislation, rescuing the auto industry, raising future fuel efficiency standards, eliminating “taxpayer giveaways to the banks for processing student loans,” and health care reform.
“Finally,” he stressed, “no one will go broke just because they get sick. Already 2.5 million young people have health insurance who didn’t have it before. Already millions of seniors are paying less for their prescription drugs because of this law. Already Americans can’t be denied coverage from their insurance companies when they need care the most. They’re getting preventive care they didn’t have before. That’s happening right now.”
Obama also briefly mentioned foreign policy achievements, including the obligatory reference to the demise of Osama bin Laden. “Change is the fact that for the first time in nine years there are no Americans fighting in Iraq,” he declared. “We have focused our attention on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11.”
But the main message was a warning about what he defined as the Republican agenda – Wall Street and insurance companies playing by their own rules, and “tax breaks for the wealthiest individuals in America – even if it means adding to the deficit, or gutting education or Medicare. Their philosophy is simple. You are on your own.”
“That’s the cramped, narrow conception of liberty they have,” Obama said, “and they are wrong.”
His contrasting vision revolves around responsibility, teamwork, and the expectation of a fair deal. “We are greater together than on our own,” Obama contends, exploiting a popular liberal platitude. “This country advances when we keep that basic American promise – that if you work hard you can do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, put a little away for retirement. And it doesn’t matter who you are and what you look like.”
For those who worry that the president has some secret agenda for a second term, however, the speech also contained just enough to keep them busy for the rest of the campaign.
It wasn't just items like the proposal to end subsidizes for an “oil industry that has rarely been more profitable” and instead “double down on clean energy that has never been more promising.” Obama also proposed something more basic, taking “the money we were spending on war and use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest of it to start doing some nation building right here at home.”
Although an easily made but tough to deliver proposal, it nevertheless represented a rare presidential assertion that the balance between military and domestic spending should undergo a major change.
Obama linked that to another change almost as difficult to achieve with a divided Congress – making sure “we’ve got a tax system that is actually fair.” Rather than blaming Republicans and the one percent, however, he flipped the argument by placing himself among the wealthy. “When someone like me gets a tax break, and that the country can’t afford, then one of two things are going to happen. Either it adds to our deficit, or we’re taking something away from somebody else.
“Either folks like me start doing more, or somebody who can’t afford it is getting less," he said. "And that’s not right. That’s not who we are.”
In response to the social issues debate among Republican candidates, Obama is talking more about values in this campaign. “Let me tell you about values,” he told the crowd at UVM. “Hard work, personal responsibility, those are values. Looking out for one another, that’s a value. ‘We’re all in this together,’ ‘I am my brother’s keeper,’ that’s a value.
“The idea that we think about the next generation, and we’re taking care of our planet, that’s a value.” It was a direct challenge of the Republic Party’s long hegemony in this area of discourse.
“Yes, we’re rugged individualists,” he admitted just before another quick pivot. What he called “you’re-on-your-own” economics” won’t work. “It’s been tried in our history and it doesn’t work. It didn’t work when we tried it in the decade before the great depression, or in the last decade.”
What opponents call class envy the president described as a spirit of common purpose. “Maybe it doesn’t exist in Washington,” he joked, “but out here in Vermont and all across America, it's there."
Since both the speech and visit were basically outreach to his base Obama ended as he began – with a pitch-perfect combination of progressive inspiration, nuanced humility and quiet defiance.
“It’s tempting to get discouraged,” he said, sounding almost like a preacher for a moment. “But I did say back in 2008 that real change, big change is hard, it takes time. It takes more than a single term and more than a single president.” That was another stump speech standard.
“What it takes is ordinary citizens who are committed to keep fighting and keep pushing, inching us closer and closer to the country’s highest ideals,” he continued.
Then something else he used to say back in 2008. “I’m not a perfect man. Michelle will tell you that,” he recalled. “And I’ll never be a perfect president. But I made a promise to you then, that I will always tell you what I believed, and always tell you where I stood, and I would wake up every single day fighting as hard as I know how for you. And I have kept that promise."
He repeated that last line three times as the applause and shouting swelled. Then he added something else they were eager to hear. “I promise you change will come,” he shouted. “We will finish what we started in 2008.”