Can Sanders' campaign connect the dots on racial justice and economic inequality?
By Ruth Conniff
President Obama told a cheering crowd of 18,000 Wisconsinites at the Summerfest Grounds in Milwaukee on Saturday, "We can't move forward when our leaders write off half the nation, calling them a bunch of victims." When the crowd began to boo, Obama told them, "Don't boo, vote!"
That line reappeared like a refrain throughout the rest of his speech. When he attacked Mitt Romney and the Republicans for wanting "oil companies to write our energy policies" and insurance companies to make health care law, the crowd booed and then, on his cue, shouted, "Don't boo, vote!"
To a diverse crowd of white, black, and brown supporters, some elderly, some college students, many with small children in tow, the President made a lot of hay out of Romney's now-famous comment that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government and "see themselves as victims."
Among the people listening to the speech were an older African-American woman, Charline Britt, a pastor at a local church, who was wearing a "Jesus" baseball cap. "I'm here for better support for the community," she told me. "More jobs, better education for my kids. We're struggling out here."
School nurses Becky Schwabe and Marina Flores-Cavins told me, "We're supporting Obama because we believe in school nurses in all schools. We believe in health care for everyone." Retired teacher Mary Jakubiak of Waukesha said she was excited to have a "once in a lifetime chance" to see the President. "I am one of the 99 percent." she said. "I pay a higher tax than Romney, and I'm totally angry about that. If he and Thompson win, they will do the same things Walker did." "I don't see a lot of victims here today," Obama told the crowd in Milwaukee. "I see hardworking Wisconsinites. I see students working their way through college. . ." (Here he was interrupted by cheering, sign-waving students.) Demand outstripped the supply of "Forward!" signs handed out by campaign volunteers who walked the aisles as people desperately tried to get their attention and score a placard. "Forward!" is the state motto of Wisconsin.
In this, and in the progressive tone of his remarks, Obama made an energetic appeal to his base in this closely divided state. It was, as Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin pointed out in her speech before the President, a great week for Democrats. Not only are both Baldwin and Obama up in the polls, but Mitt Romney seems to have handed the Democrats a campaign theme that neatly defines the ideological difference they most want to highlight--between a party determined to serve the interests of the rich, and one that is more concerned with the well-being of the majority of working people. After an introduction by Baldwin, who is running to replace retiring Senator Herb Kohl in the U.S. Senate, Obama picked up on many of her fair-trade, pro-union themes, which are particularly resonant in this blue-collar city.
(Baldwin, who dwelt quite a bit on unfair trade with China, has been notably more progressive on trade than Obama, voting against Most Favored Nation status for China as well as CAFTA, which the President supported.)
Obama's plan to improve the economy and strengthen the middle class, he said, "starts by exporting more products and outsourcing fewer jobs."
Referring to the auto industry rescue--a major theme of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last month, he said, "What we did for autos we want to do for manufacturing across the board." He got a huge cheer for saying America must "stop giving tax breaks to companies shipping jobs overseas."
He got more cheers for fuel efficiency and green energy (other areas where advocates had hoped for more from his Administration) and for a passing reference to education reform (a political hot potato, especially during the recent Chicago teachers' strike.)
"I wouldn't be standing here if I hadn't had a great education," Obama said. It was a reminder that his personal journey included the college aid derided by millionaire candidate Romney. As he endorsed expanding access to college through Federal grants and loans, he got an enthusiastic response from the crowd.
The biggest applause lines came when he drew the sharpest ideological contrast with the Republicans: "My opponent--he wants to gut education to give tax breaks to the wealthy." ("Don't boo--vote!")
"I've got to tell you, Milwaukee, I refuse to tell middle class families to give up their deduction for owning a home so millionaires can have a tax cut . . . I refuse to ask college students to pay more . . . or ask millions of poor people to go without health care."
He reminded the crowd that he kept his promise to bring the troops home from Iraq, and that "Osama bin Laden is dead." Taking a jab at Senate Republicans who just voted down a veterans' jobs bill, he said, "If you fought for our freedom, you shouldn't have to fight for a job when you come home."
Toward the end of his speech to the capacity crowd, the sky turned dark, the wind picked up and it started to rain.
"I know you're getting wet," the President said, "But I've got one more thing to say."
Of his opponents, Obama said, "Their basic philosophy is, 'You're on your own.' If you don't have health insurance, hope you don't get sick. If you can't afford to go to college, try to borrow some money from your parents."
"That's not who we are," he added.
Saying the Republicans spend all their time "blaming someone--blaming unions, blaming immigrants, blaming gay people," he declared: "I don't believe America is just about what can be done for us. It's what can be done by us together."
The rain stopped as Obama wrapped up his speech: "We are going to win Milwaukee. We are going to win Wisconsin," he declared, and "We are going to show the world why the United States of America is the best nation on Earth."
"The sun is going to come out," he added.
As if on cue, the light broke through the clouds in shafts and a huge rainbow arched across the sky behind the stage, as the theme song, "We Take Care of Our Own" played, and the crowd dispersed.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Democratic Convention Buries RNC."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter