Campaigner in chief: Obama address to Ann Arbor crowd sounded like stump speech
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
(Related: Mega guide to the president's visit)
Despite assurances his visit to Ann Arbor wasn't a political event, but rather official White House business, Barack Obama surely played the role of campaigner in chief today.
But who could blame him?
The November election is a little more than nine months away, and the state of Michigan is politically critical to his re-election hopes.
It's no coincidence that so are the four other states he visited this week — Arizona, Colorado, Iowa and Nevada — on a three-day tour following his State of the Union address.
Obama is kicking his campaign into high gear, and he used Ann Arbor as a launch pad, knowing he needs to to carry Michigan.
Addressing a receptive crowd of about 4,000 — mostly students — at the University of Michigan, Obama wasted no time reminding all of the auto industry bailout. He said the federal government placed its bets on Detroit, and now the American auto industry is back.
"Michigan is all about making stuff," Obama said. "If there's anybody in America who can teach us about how to bring back manufacturing, it is the great state of Michigan."
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
"It's a campaign year and I think we heard Michigan featured prominently in the State of the Union," Irwin said. "When he talked about the auto industry and the comeback here in Michigan, you know, that was I think a message to the voters in the upper Midwest that the president cares about manufacturing jobs, he cares about the economy here and, of course, there's a political angle to that message, but there's also a leadership angle to that message."
Obama has been on the road since Tuesday's State of the Union address in which he laid out a plan to rebuild America's economy by focusing on domestic oil and natural gas production, manufacturing, increased federal investment in clean energy and education.
The president has been building on those themes all week, and it's likely the message he'll continue to stress throughout his 2012 re-election campaign.
Speaking at U-M, Obama elaborated on the theme of college affordability. He skipped political attacks, but repeated that he's calling on Congress to support his agenda.
Several public officials, including U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, were on hand to hear his message, but notably absent was Rick Snyder. The Republican governor of Michigan was a no-show as Obama delivered his speech at Snyder's alma mater.
"We can't make it work," a Snyder spokeswoman told the Detroit Free Press on Thursday, acknowledging the governor received an invitation to meet with Obama.
According to the Free Press, Snyder was on hand just once over the last year as Obama made trips to Marquette, Holland, Detroit and Orion Township. Snyder was expected to speak at noon today at the Michigan Press Association's annual meeting in Grand Rapids.
Today's setting might not have been the most comfortable for Snyder anyway. Obama used his speech to criticize state budget cuts to higher education. He said 40 states across the nation, including Michigan, cut their higher education budgets in the last year.
"And we know that these state budget cuts have been the largest factor in tuition increases at public colleges over the past decade," Obama said. "So we're challenging states to take the responsibility as well on this issue. Today we're going to launch a Race to the Top for college affordability. We're telling the states if you can find new ways to bring down the cost of college and make it easier for more students to graduate, we'll help you do it."
The timing couldn't be better for Democrats in the state Legislature who recently laid out an ambitious proposal to offer free college tuition to all Michigan high school graduates at no additional cost to taxpayers, potentially the first program of its kind in the country. Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer is now leveraging Obama's words.
"In his State of the Union, President Obama called on Congress to work together in a bipartisan fashion to make higher education and reducing student debt a priority, and we should do the same here in Michigan," Whitmer said in a statement prior to Obama's visit to Ann Arbor. "I urge Gov. Snyder and my Republican colleagues to support the Michigan 2020 Plan and join us in changing Michigan's economic landscape for the better forever."
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
The last time Obama visited Ann Arbor, in May 2010, Michigan was still for all intents and purposes a blue state. But the fact that every statewide elected office, including the governor's office, and both chambers of the Legislature are now Republican-controlled didn't change his tone today. He delivered a message to a receptive Ann Arbor audience, appealing to core Democratic values with a promise to fight for the middle class.
"We want a country where everybody has a chance," Obama said, bringing up the growing divide between the wealthy and the middle class in America and the fact that many millionaires pay lower tax rates than millions of middle class households.
These are sure to be campaign themes, especially considering who's in line to be his GOP opponent in November.
Obama surely knows if the 2012 presidential race ends up being a contest between him and multimillionaire Mitt Romney, it's going to be a fierce battle for Michigan.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who already paid Ann Arbor a visit last May, is a Michigan native and son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney, who was chairman and CEO of American Motors Corp. from 1954 to 1962 and governor from 1963 to 1969.
State Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, was on hand for Obama's visit along with her husband, Conan Smith, chairman of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. Warren said Obama makes a good case for why his policies are helping Michigan.
"For us, the president has always remembered Michigan," Warren said. "He never turned his back on us. Even when times were tough, he's consistently sent resources here to bail out the auto industry and to invest in critical programs in Michigan, and we're here today to support that and to let him know that Michigan is recovering but we've still got more to do."
Warren, who has met Obama twice before, had a message for the president today: "Keep those checks coming, Mr. President. Michigan still needs your time and attention."
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.