The Ann Arbor Chronicle » Barack Obama it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 In It For The Money: Presidential Stinkburger Mon, 07 Apr 2014 15:29:41 +0000 David Erik Nelson The President of the United States visited Ann Arbor on April 2. If you want to know what he said, you can read a faithful transcript right here, or just watch the unedited remarks.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

But none of that puts you in the room with the PotUS. Hearing the same four presidential soundbites about Zingerman’s and minimum wage played over and over again on the radio certainly gives you the gist of what was said; none of it was earth shattering.

In fact, I’d wager that most Chronicle readers could generate a fairly accurate facsimile of the remarks made by the PotUS working strictly from First Principles. You know what politicians are like: Y’all a good looking crowd! God bless America! Handshake-babykiss-SMILE! You know what excites East Coasters about Ann Arbor: Zingerman’s! Sportsball! Wolverines! And you know how PotUS stands on the minimum wage: Raise it!

None of that puts you in the room.

And you’re likely inclined to say: So what? What’s the use of being in the room? What’s the bother of showing up in a specific time and place to see something that’ll be on YouTube ten minutes after it happens, to be watched at my leisure? Hell, Dave: Why did you bother wasting so many hours to be in that room? Don’t you have better things to do with your time?

And, while I do have better things (or at least better paid things) to do with my time, there’s always value in being in the room. In abstract, there’s value because being in the room is The Job. It’s what I’ve said I will do for you: I will show the hell up, and tell you what the hell I saw. This is the baseline contract any newspaper should have with its readers.

And specifically, on this occasion, there was value in being in the room because some things do not come across in articles and the op-eds and the clips and soundbites – not even in the unedited audio or video. There are intangibles – including all of the things that are outside the frame of the camera, too far away for the mics to pick up, or of little interest to the reporters on hand.

In The Room With The President

Appropriately enough, the venue for the visit was the basketball court at the top of the University of Michigan Intramural Building. This is an old building – constructed in 1927-38 – and the basketball court is a general purpose gymnasium: no bleachers, no built in hoops. Enormous windows allow excellent natural light, and the balls get dribbled on maple floors (which UM notes are original, and somewhat oddly constructed). All told, the innocuous IM Building is a goddamned fortress. It’s an open box with good light and excellent acoustics.

April 2, 2014 IM building on the University of Michigan campus: U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the assembly.

April 2, 2014 IM building on the University of Michigan campus: U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the assembly.

About half the space – the half with a conspicuous maize-and-blue MICHIGAN painted on the brickwork – had been prepped for remarks from the PotUS. It was cordoned off, then broken into two roughly equal-sized seating areas: “blue ticket” to the left, and “red ticket” to the right.

The red ticket section had seating, and was populated by Local Dignitaries (the mayor, UM Regents, Jon Conyers, a prominent metro-area family of personal-injury attorneys, etc.) and People Who Deserved Chairs (several UM sports stars, folks whose jackets prominently advertised their labor union affiliations, a voluble Detroiter in a track-suit who didn’t like banjo music and identified all of these people for me, etc.) The student section offered a row of portable bleachers against the wall beneath a sign reading OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL – which, when you think about it, doesn’t really have much to do with minimum wage, unless you’re really stretching it – and the rest of the space was standing-room-only.

These two sections embraced a little stage and podium for the PotUS, which was backed by another set of bleachers – packed with hand-picked UM students – and a very, very large American flag. In case you’re wondering: Yes, the students in the bleachers behind the PotUS were markedly more attractive than those who had seemingly randomly packed the bleachers in the “student section.”

The ethno-racial and gender breakdown of both bleachers and the student crowd seemed to be balanced, although I got the distinct sense that neither is a good match for the current race distribution at the university. That’s a topic for some other column, some other time (likely written by some other guy). This was all encircled by ring of steel made of the sort of portable railings I’ve seen used for ad-hoc cattle pens.

Orbiting all of this was a crescent of media. Some of the media were held on two risers (one directly opposite the PotUS, one to the right, sorta-kinda mirroring the student bleachers). These were crowded with thickets of tripods and cameramen. A roped off section of folding tables was packed with media folks crouched over lap tops. The rest of us journalistic rabble crowded at the cattle railing.

A very nicely dressed person wearing a “volunteer” badge told me that 1,400 people were in attendance. I have no idea of that number included media and staff. If not, then give that number a healthy bump of at least 10 percent or more.

Frankly, I have a lot of questions about much of the media. For example, of the folks like me crowded at the rail, very few were operating cameras, or holding recorders, or taking any sort of notes, or using cameras to do anything other than attempt to snap a selfie of themselves and the PotUS – who was no less than 65 feet away, standing behind a podium on a raised stage, and busy giving advice to college kids.

I'd totally planned to take a sort of half-joking, post-ironic selfie with PotUS in the background. But watching all these other folks do exactly this same thing  (1) drove home how painfully unoriginal my originality is; and (2) was totally, totally mortifying. So here's a photo of my press pass instead.

I’d totally planned to take a sort of half-joking, post-ironic selfie with PotUS in the background. But watching all these other folks do exactly this same thing (1) drove home how painfully unoriginal my originality is; and (2) was totally, totally mortifying. So here’s a photo of my press pass instead.

The point here, mostly, is that I’ve seen this crowd in other media accounts described as “raucous students.” And I just want to make the point that much of it (certainly in terms of floor space) was not students.

And although the students were exuberant, they were remarkably orderly given the circumstances. The lag between the audience load-in and the President’s actual remarks was at least 90 minutes, during which the organizers played looped, tinny banjo music at extremely high volume.

No one liked that music, and while the folks near me (I was on the rail behind the Local Dignitaries and Other Chair Sitters) were starting to get vocal on this topic, the close-packed students were happy as clams in a very crowded kettle.

The PotUS Is Such A Dad

What is the PotUS? For one thing, apparently, he is a Dad. And I don’t just mean to say he’s the biological father to Sasha and Malia; there hasn’t been childless PotUS since James K. Polk (who, Batmanishly, took on a nephew as his ward – so you could argue there’s never been a childless PotUS). I’m talking about the Nature of the sitting PotUS. George W. Bush was a “Cool” Big Brother – which is to say half rake, half bully. His father was a Study Hall Proctor. Reagan was, obviously, a Hollywood Actor. Clinton? He was an Elvis. And the current PotUS is a total Dad.

The PotUS arrived in his shirtsleeves, because he was ready to Get Down to Business and Hit Us with Some Straight Talk about wages and stuff. The PotUS complimented us as good-looking, and commended our work ethic and academic achievements. He seemed to legitimately admire the quality of the prominent sportsball players in the audience, which pleased the audience a great deal.

Then, like somebody’s dad, the PotUS cajolingly admonished us to sit down – which might have seemed sort of cryptic to home-viewers, because the crowd was cropped out of the shot. Everyone had given a standing ovation upon his entrance, and then remained standing. Many folks were standing on their rickety folding chairs – which any dad will tell you is dangerous, and bad for the chairs. C’mon, guys; settle down. I’ve gotta talk to you about something important.

This was all in the first three minutes and thirty seconds of his speech.

He went on to tell an anecdote about his lunch (Zingerman’s! ZINGERMAN’S!!!). He gave some really legit advice on properly structuring your college debt, and suggested that it’s important always to be polite when arguing with folks about politics. He may have advised us to neither be a borrower nor a lender, and to our own selves be true – I’d need to double check my recording.

Such dad-ish digressions were peppered throughout the presentation. The speech was taken up by long stretches during which the PotUS was clearly working crisply from the prompters and notes – stretches indistinguishable from every speech of his you’ve seen on video. And then we’d hit one of these sparkly little patches where the PotUS could be your pal’s dad, driving you to the movies in the family minivan, periodically craning back to explain something about compounding interest, or the infield fly rule, or why you always want to be sure your tires are at the appropriate PSI.

You know, standard issue dad small talk.

But the most dad-ish run in his remarks starts around 25 minutes in to the speech. The PotUS is talking about GOP economic policies, which seem to be in a rut: The same ideas stuck on repeat, despite being neither popular nor effective. He gets a little salty about the most recent attempt to repeal Obamacare: “Because they haven’t tired that fifty times!” And then about a minute later PotUS drops in a joke comparing these stuck-on-repeat GOP tactics to the film “Groundhog Day” – “except it isn’t funny.”

Now, I believe that line was scripted – and maybe not as a joke, precisely. He really seemed legitimately peeved at that point, just as he had with the “fifty times” jab a minute earlier. But the Groundhog Day joke turned into an actual laugh line for the audience – one that got a really disproportionate response. It really landed.

And you could sense the PotUS becoming emboldened, in the way dads will. You can see it in the video, a hint of it, but there in the room, you could feel the antic energy gathering. Even from 65 feet away, standing behind the crowd, I could feel a dad joke coming. It was like the portentous pressure front that precedes a tornado; my ears popped, wasps went nuts, squirrels fled, dogs barked at locked doors.

“If they tried to sell this sandwich at Zingerman’s,” the PotUS said, struggling to suppress his glee, “they’d have to call it [tiny pause] the Stinkburger.

I’m quite confident that somewhere in Washington D.C., at 3:19 p.m. on April 2, Sasha and Malia found themselves spontaneously rolling their eyes. “Oh no,” they gasped, miles apart, yet in perfect unison, “Somewhere, Dad’s trying to be ‘funny.’ ”

The crowd in the IM building was perplexed, thinking Did the President of the United States just say “Stinkburger”? I know this, because the two cameraless-notepadless-compterless-recorderless “media” people behind me – “mean girls” from central casting in pastel blouses and dark pant suits, who’d been snarking throughout the preceding 28 minutes – said aloud exactly that:

Ohmagawd. Did he just say ‘Stinkburger’?!

Frankly, they were just saying what the rest of us were thinking – at least at that moment. The other 28 minutes of their chatter was all just catty bullshit about people, places, and outfits I couldn’t conceivably have cared less about. But in that moment, we were all together, all of us, from the most exalted student athlete to the lowliest scribbler, joined of a single mind, wondering:

Did the guy who makes the drone kill list just say “Stinkburger”?

True to form for a dad, our chagrin did not dissuade the President of the United States and Leader of the Free World. There was joke there somewhere, and he could feel it. From across the crowded room, I could see him groping for that laugh-line.

So he groped on dad-style after the Stinkburger until he found something else: “Or the … or the … or the … or the Meanwhich!” Nailed it!

Ohhh. Dag, Mr. Obama. That’s … that’s not great. You can pull over and drop us off here. We’ll walk the rest of the way to the mall.

That joke just hung there, stagnant and awful as a fart in a car. And then we all laughed, because – just like that fart in a car – the awfulness, and the fact that we were all caught in that awfulness together, was itself sorta funny.

Dad Jokes, Domestic Policy

It’s been interesting to see the Stinkburger joke spin out across the political universe, especially among folks who weren’t in the room. In the local coverage – much of which, I can verify, was based on first-hand accounts – the Stinkburger didn’t seem to merit much mention. Nationally, it gained some traction in the Twitter feeds of elected Republicans, who were suitably outraged (but not there, in the room with us). Now, over the last few days, it’s been shoehorned into the headlines and ledes of articles in Business Insider,,, the Washington Post, etc. – as though it’s a legitimate expression of executive policy.

In case there’s any question, there is no “Executive Order: To Hell with GOP Stinkburgers!”

But treating any part of the PotUS’s April 2 remarks as legitimate political rhetoric meant to sway a dubious electorate is just as nutty. He didn’t come here to convince 1,400 people in the Upper Midwest that raising the minimum wage by $2.85 is a good idea. We’d all waited hours to get in, gone through the security rigamarole, and then stood around for another couple hours listening to excruciating banjo music. The folks who were on board came because they were already on board. The folks who weren’t came so that they could find something to be angry about.

He came to give us what we want: A sense of connection with the Leader of the Free World.

And, true to his agreeable nature and intent to be an aisle-bridging centrist, the PotUS gave everyone exactly what they needed – even the folks who just want to be pissed off at him, even the folks who didn’t show up to be in the room.

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Packard & State Thu, 03 Apr 2014 00:01:45 +0000 Bear Hare Krishnas singing, chanting and dancing in front of R.U.B. BBQ on the corner of Packard & State, while President Obama is speechifying nearby in the intramural building on Hoover!

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UM IM Sports Building Wed, 02 Apr 2014 21:27:52 +0000 Sumi Kailasapathy [As the president was passing,] I said I ran and won. Immediately Obama stopped, and started talking to me, congratulated me … it was just unbelievable. [photo] (Photo credit Daniel Wasserman)

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Ann Arbor: Obama Wed, 02 Apr 2014 20:44:32 +0000 Chronicle Staff Several media outlets reported on President Barack Obama’s speech in Ann Arbor on Wednesday, where he focused on efforts to raise the federal minimum wage $7.25 to $10.10 an hour by 2016. From CNN: “Speaking to a rowdy crowd at the University of Michigan, Obama used much of his remarks to lambast Republicans who oppose such a hike, saying it amounted to giving working-class Americans ‘the shaft.’” [Source] The Detroit Free Press quotes UM freshman Greg Lobel: “He’s been a great president for college kids. He’s a huge basketball fan. He’s hilarious. He relates to the kids.” [Source] Detroit’s NBC affiliate provides video of Obama’s lunch at Zingerman’s Deli – he ordered a Reuben. [Source]


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Hoover & State Wed, 02 Apr 2014 20:03:34 +0000 Yousef Rabhi Raising the wage with President Obama! [photo]

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Hoover & Sybil Wed, 02 Apr 2014 17:05:54 +0000 David Erik Nelson City dump trucks moved in as barricades for PotUS visit. This one is full of aggregate! [photo]

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Column: Reflections on Two Inaugurations Tue, 22 Jan 2013 17:50:26 +0000 L. S. Brown & H. Brown Editor’s note: Ann Arbor residents Laura Sky Brown and her son Henry attended the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama. This year they returned to the nation’s capital, and filed periodic updates for The Chronicle along the way. This column contains their reflections on those trips, beginning with observations by Laura Sky Brown.

Laura Sky Brown, Jan. 21, 2013 on the occasion of the public  inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama.

Laura Sky Brown, Jan. 21, 2013 on the occasion of the public inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama.

I was never the kind of person who went to mass events. I could not imagine lining up overnight for concert tickets, crowding in to Times Square to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, or sitting in the midst of thousands at a music festival.

So it’s a little bit amazing that I have now attended not one but two presidential inaugurations. Both times, I have been motivated almost entirely by the desire to give my middle son Henry a thrill. Henry is the guy among my four children who will sit down and watch “Hardball” and CNN with me, who has incisive commentary on political issues, and who understands how to listen to rhetoric and pull out the essential elements (and root out the crap buried inside). I harbor not-so-secret hopes that he will go into political life, although he is reserved and introverted – so as a strategist, not as a candidate.

At this inauguration – much as at the one in 2009 – the event for me was all about the people. We did get to see the President, we did get to be present at important national events, but what was most valuable was to see and interact with people from all over the country. We had our pictures taken by people from Florida, we stood in line behind people from Minnesota, and we sat across a cafe table from a New Yorker. We walked down the street behind a photographer from the White House press corps.

So many people brought little kids with them. You might say that is a crazy idea, perhaps even dangerous – taking a five-year-old or even a ten-year-old into a huge mass of people. You’d be wrong. Most of them had wide eyes that were taking it all in, and you could picture them in 50 years telling their grandchildren how they were there. What would I give, in retrospect, to have been dragged to the inauguration of Richard Nixon in the 1960s or to have seen the Carters get out of the car and walk in their inaugural parade when I was a teenager?

As for the inaugural speech, yes, we could have heard and seen it a lot better at home on MSNBC. But there is something so much better about hearing a speech sail through the air when you are standing in the crowd, knowing the speaker is right over there if you stand on tiptoe and squint. The bracing cool weather made it even better, somehow. I was riveted to the spot listening, thrilled and even a bit shocked to realize that I was hearing truly progressive ideas stated with firm confidence.

In the four short years between Henry at age 13 in 2009 and Henry at age 17 right now, our national climate has changed to the point where, yes, he just heard President Obama firmly support gay rights in the middle of the second inaugural address. I stood there thinking: Did I really hear the president of the United States name Stonewall alongside Selma? Yes, it really happened. As a kid with two moms, Henry really did stand next to me and hear Obama’s confident affirmation ringing over the loudspeakers, live. I can still hear it if I close my eyes.

We decided not to try to get into the parade crowds. Somehow, being present at the swearing-in ceremonies was exactly enough. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around, people watching. We’re already talking about January 2017. I don’t know who will be standing with his or her hand on a Bible to be sworn in as our next president, but if it’s Hillary Clinton, we are so there.

Because of Henry, I am now the kind of person who would wade boldly into a crowd of a million to have an Inauguration Day experience. Not only that, but I would recommend it to anybody to try.

Henry Brown: “An Achievement of Shared Ideals”

Four years ago, on Christmas Day, my mom told me that together we would be attending the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. I was in eighth grade at the time, and the experience of being among hundreds of thousands of people in celebration of an achievement of shared ideals was something completely new and unprecedented for me.

Henry Brown, Jan. 21, 2013 on the occasion of the public inauguration ceremony of Barack Obama

Henry Brown, Jan. 21, 2013 on the occasion of the public inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama.

It is now four years later, I am a senior in high school, and Obama has been re-elected for a second term as president. I paid very close attention to the president’s campaign and to the 2012 presidential election, and knew even before the day of the election that I would be attending the second inauguration of Barack Obama.

The greatest things about attending the inauguration this year are, first, that not only is a Democratic politician spending four more years as president, but that politician is Barack Obama, whom I believe to know the issues of both the United States and the world, and who has the best interest of the American people in mind. Second, the number of people who came out to Washington, D.C., to show support for the second term of the Obama administration was made only more fantastic by the mood of extreme excitement and happiness shared by everybody in the city.

This year we had tickets to what was called the “yellow zone,” which was a segment of the city close to the Capitol building – so for the actual inauguration, we were only about 500 feet from the Capitol. If not for the trees, I could have seen perfectly. I hope to go back to the next inauguration, by which time I will have voted in the election. I am so glad I was part of these two historical events.

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Inauguration 2013: Obama’s Second Term Mon, 21 Jan 2013 14:40:48 +0000 L. S. Brown & H. Brown Editor’s note: Four years ago, Laura Sky Brown and her son Henry Brown traveled from Ann Arbor to Washington D.C. for the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America.

Laura Sky Brown and Henry Brown in Washington D.C. in front of the Washington monument Jan. 20, 2013.

Laura Sky Brown and Henry Brown in Washington D.C. in front of the Washington monument Jan. 20, 2013.

This year they’ve headed back to our nation’s capital to watch the public inauguration ceremony on Jan. 21.  The 20th amendment to the U.S. Constitution set the end of each presidential term at noon on Jan. 20. So President Obama took the actual oath of office on Jan. 20 in a private ceremony.

Laura and Henry are filing brief updates along the way, in the spirit of The Chronicle’s traditional Election Day coverage of the polls. 

19 January 10:44 p.m. (Toledo, Ohio Amtrak Station): Henry and I are waiting inside a festive station full of travelers en route to the inauguration. Cameraman from Channel 13 Toledo is doing a little video reporting in the waiting area. Train will leave at 11:15 p.m.

20 January noon (Washington, D.C. Union Station): We came in by Amtrak train from Toledo, which left at 11:15 p.m. and arrived just past noon at Washington’s Union Station. Among the other passengers, most of whom were on their way here for the inauguration, there was a group of 28 people traveling together who were mostly older, very well-dressed African American women from Toledo. A news reporter from the Toledo ABC affiliate was there with a camera doing some interviews.

 20 January (Rayburn House Office Building, Dingell’s Office): On arrival at Union Station, we walked over to the Rayburn House Office Building. Along the way we passed other Congressional office buildings (they are behind the capitol in the Capitol Hill neighborhood), each with a small line of people waiting to go through metal detectors to go in and get Inauguration tickets, which are handed out by members of Congress to constituents.

I got our tickets, basically, by calling Rep. Dingell’s office nearly every day since November and e-mailing regularly. It paid off in that, when we walked in the door, two aides welcomed us with, “You must be Laura Sky Brown and her son Henry,” and they walked us in to Rep. Dingell’s office and let us sit in his chairs. 

I interrogated an aide, Derek Dobies, hoping Henry would find his story interesting and perhaps inspiring: 2008 graduate from MSU in political theory, worked on the Dingell campaign and managed it in East Lansing. Took his picture in Rep. Dingell's office.

I interrogated an aide, Derek Dobies, hoping Henry would find his story interesting and perhaps inspiring: 2008 graduate from MSU in political theory, worked on the Dingell campaign and managed it in East Lansing. Took his picture in Rep. Dingell’s office.

We also saw the health care reform gavel (I touched it) and Rep. Dingell's motorized scooter in the corner of the office. I was interested to see that his desk was covered with papers. Unfortunately he was not in the offices at the time.

We also saw the health care reform gavel (I touched it) and Rep. Dingell’s motorized scooter in the corner of the office. I was interested to see that his desk was covered with papers. Unfortunately he was not in the offices at the time.

We also saw tlong with the tickets, which admit us to the Yellow zone for the ceremony, we were handed an over-the-top large engraved commemorative invitation to the ceremony with gold braid on it, and mechanically signed photos of the President and VP.  Planning to frame the invitation.he health care reform gavel (I touched it) and Rep. Dingell's motorized scooter in the corner of the office. I was interested to see that his desk was covered with papers. Unfortunately he was not in the offices at the time.Along with the tickets, which admit us to the Yellow zone for the ceremony, we were handed an over-the-top large engraved commemorative invitation to the ceremony with gold braid on it, and mechanically signed photos of the President and VP.  Planning to frame the invitation.

Along with the tickets, which admit us to the Yellow zone for the ceremony, we were handed an over-the-top large engraved commemorative invitation to the ceremony with gold braid on it, and mechanically signed photos of the President and VP.  Planning to frame the invitation.

20 January (Lincoln Memorial): Henry’s one unmissable sight for today was to go pay a visit to the Lincoln Second Inaugural speech, which is carved into the wall up at the Lincoln Memorial. The walk took about 90 minutes among large crowds, and it was totally worth the walk to stand under the famous lines as well as to see the statue again.


“Let us strive on to finish the work we are in … “

20 January (Union Station):  Getting back to Union Station at the end of the day was a challenge involving walking, a taxi, running, the subway system, and more running, as the streets were being closed off one by one all around the Capitol just as we reached them. We made the last train of the day as it was starting to pull out of the station.

We are taking the commuter train back in this morning (Monday) from Harpers Ferry West Virginia, where we’re staying with friends. It doesn’t arrive at Union Station until 9:15 a.m. by which time the crowds should be peaking.

We are anticipating the same major difficulty getting where we want to be for the inaugural ceremony as we had four years ago.

Will keep you posted as the day goes on!

21 January early morning (Union Station): The crowds begin.

Crowds in Union Station

Crowds in Union Station

Obama bags for $5

Obama bags for $5

Demonstrator in Washington D.C. on Jan. 21, 2013

Demonstrator in Washington D.C. on Jan. 21, 2013

Crowds are fraction of last time, four years ago. Can move! And text!

Crowds are fraction of what they were four years ago. Can move! And text!

Four yrs ago this tunnel was a teeming mass of humanity and we were scared of being trapped and turned back! Today nobody walking through at all and street above almost walkable.

Four years ago this tunnel was a teeming mass of humanity and we were scared of being trapped and turned back! Today nobody walking through at all and street above almost walkable.

Long but friendly line to go through security.

Long but friendly line to go through security.

21 January 10:10 a.m. (Security Checkpoint): Big crowd but nobody pushing. In sight of entry gates but too close and dark for photo.

21 January 10:29 a.m. (Security Checkpoint): Gate temporarily closed for crowd control; we are very close to getting through.

Getting through security.

Getting through security.

21 January 11:29 a.m. (Mall): We are on left as we face the Capitol. Weather cool but pleasant. Crowd cheerful and we can hear though not see below the dome from here . People have climbed nearby trees. Henry wanted to but I nixed idea. Chuck Schumer speaking. Crowd goes wild when he says name of Barack Obama.

People around us in crowd posing for pictures  holding their tickets while Sen. Schumer speaks

People around us in crowd posing for pictures holding their tickets while Sen. Schumer speaks

Laura Sky Brown, Jan. 21, 2013 presidential inauguration ceremony.

Laura Sky Brown, Jan. 21, 2013 presidential inauguration ceremony. Hearing Hail to the Chief we are really up close! Boehner is announced to boos from all around us, Obama to cheers.

21 January 11:50 a.m. (Mall): Biden sworn in. We can sort of see even. James Taylor singing America the Beautiful.

21 January 11:52 a.m. (Mall): Here comes presidential oath. Hush over crowd.

21 January 11:54 a.m. (Mall): Crowd chanting O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!

Crowd cheers Obama taking oath.

Crowd cheers Obama taking oath.

Listening to Barack Obama's inaugural address on Jan. 21, 2013.

Listening to Barack Obama’s inaugural address on Jan. 21, 2013. “Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm. That is our generation’s task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American.”

A transcript of President Obama’s full inaugural address is posted on the White House website.

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In it for the Money: C.R.E.A.M. Fri, 23 Nov 2012 13:45:59 +0000 David Erik Nelson Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. Nelson is sort of a long-winded son-of-a-gun. If you want to read very short things by Nelson, more frequently than once a month, you can follow him on Twitter, where he’s @SquiDaveo

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

I voted to re-elect Barack Obama. I doubt that’s a terrible shocker, but I want to explain why I did so – and why, regardless of how the economy looks on Jan. 1, or next summer, or in four years, I will still be proud of that decision.

In the run-up to Nov. 6 we kept hearing – and by extension kept telling each other – that this election was “about the economy, stupid!” I beef with that claim, but don’t reject it entirely – certainly not so long as I’m writing under the banner of being “In It for the Money.”

A lot of Americans frame the American Dream as one of economic security. While economic security is obviously a vital component of the Dream, to see that as the whole Dream is – as I’ve sorta harped on in the past – more than a little sad. When Jefferson cribbed Locke for the Declaration of Independence, he revised those original unalienable rights from “life, liberty, and estate” to the often ironically snarked “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I doubt that was a typo.

Call me a sucker, but like Honest Abe, I believe in the Declaration of Independence as the fundamental expression of what our Unfinished Work [1] is all about – now in its 236th year. And, while you may need to bank some Estate in order to pursue that Happiness, it’s a bit shallow to argue that acquiring the Estate is the same thing as acquiring Happiness.

When I stood at the flimsy little voting station – a plastic tray with telescoping metal legs, set up in Allen Elementary School – I wasn’t there to vote for a smaller national debt or expanded social programs or lower taxes or higher unemployment. I was there to vote to advance our Unfinished Work.

And that meant filling in the bubble next to Obama/Biden. Let me explain.

An Experiment In Liberty And Equality

Back in 1790 the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island were a little anxious. Newport (at that time called “New Port,” because that’s just exactly what it was) had been largely a loyalist community, and was occupied by the British throughout the Revolution. Jews were not equal under British law. They wouldn’t be emancipated in the United Kingdom until the mid-1800s(!), and weren’t even precisely recognized citizens of the Crown. They were naturalized in Great Britain by the Jew Bill of 1753, but were then de-naturalized the following year due to public outcry. The bigotry under which they lived, as British subjects, was legally sanctioned and popularly supported.

These Jewish colonists had been treated well in New Port when it was a British Colony, but were understandably a bit more interested in being part of this experimental new national government “erected by the Majesty of the People.” When Washington swung through New Port on his post-election victory lap, the Jews of New Port wrote him a letter of support, signed by Moses Sexias [2].

Washington’s oft-quoted reply, which echoes Sexias’s turn of phrase, goes like so [emphasis mine]:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

That phrase, calling ours a government “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” is my National Anthem. It makes my heart sing every time I come across it, and always has – even before I’d learned that it wasn’t just the gracious words of Our First President, but also the ardent articulation of the hopes of a bunch of my (largely anonymous) fellow Jews.

Improving the Unfinished Work

Lincoln nailed it when he called ours an Unfinished Work. When Washington bit the lines of Sexias, this bouncing baby nation still sanctioned plenty of bigotry and assisted in lots of persecution. Article IV, Section 2 of our damned Constitution assured slaves that there was no way they could outrun their involuntary servitude on U.S. soil, and would keep doing so right up until Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment.

Because I understand the Human Project to be one of fixing up a messy world [3], I’m sort of accustomed to Unfinished Work in need of incremental improvement. When I step into a voting booth, when I need to pick a president, I don’t ask myself, “Am I better off than I was four years ago?” [4] I ask myself, “Who brings us closer to being the thing we’re supposed to be: The Nation that gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance?”

And, I’m sorry, but there was no indication anywhere in the Romney/Ryan platform of our nation, under their leadership, even inadvertently stumbling toward giving bigotry less sanction. Meanwhile – and perhaps this sounds crass, but it’s just as true as a plumb bob – by dint of skin tone alone Barack Obama did more to move our national needle away from the “Sanctioned” end of the Bigotry dial than any living president. Add in his support of marriage equity, his abandoning of the Defense of Marriage Act and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” his championing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 and reproductive rights, and you have a president who has done more to de-sanction bigotry in this country than any in 150 years.

Before everyone I know and love freaks out and tears my head off because of Wall Street and “murder drones” and Bradley Manning and energy independence and the economy (stupid!) and Israel and Palestine and Libya and Syria and David Petraeus and everything else that isn’t gonna be under the Yule Tree this year, or next year, or the year after, listen: I’m not saying that the PotUS is a Magical Wish-Granting Negro come to make all of our Progressive dreams come true. I am saying that he’s a President of the United States of America and that, since George Washington’s inauguration in 1789, that job has primarily been about improving the Unfinished Work by moving us closer to Giving Bigotry No Sanction – even if the white, slave-owning Christians who started us down this road could hardly fathom how far we’d run with their flowery talk.

That is the job – not shepherding the economy, not brokering peace in the Fertile Crescent, not energy independence, not any of our pet projects. The job is to bring the nation we’ve got closer to being the Nation We Set Out For: The one that, like no other to ever grace this globe, Brings Justice to All.

Expanding The Electorate Expands Equality

Perhaps what’s most emblematic of the progress embodied by the Obama’s re-election is how he pulled it off. Often elections seem to focus almost exclusively on first solidifying support among the party faithful, and then with wooing “independents” (i.e., registered voters who show no party affiliation). What was extra-special about the Obama Campaign – and resulted in both a tidy majority in the popular vote and pretty stunning chunk of the Electoral College [5] – was how deeply it focused on expanding the electorate instead of wooing the independents. The campaign sought out citizens who were likely to support the president but had never voted before, and brought them into the conversation. From a marketing perspective, this is an entirely different activity from traditional campaigning, because you aren’t seeking to shift an existing behavior (“Buy Coke instead of Pepsi!”) but to create a new behavior (“Go to the gym instead of standing around drinking pop!”)

So, that’s one last nudge away from sanctioning bigotry and assisting persecution: Bringing the disenfranchised into the national conversation. I can think of nothing that better exemplifies what our democracy should be about than dropping millions of dollars on convincing people who don’t think their voice is valid or valuable that they need to join the conversation.

In the days following the election, as I heard both the Romney/Ryan campaign and Mitt Romney himself bemoaning – and even demonizing – this project of expanding the electorate, I was left to wonder what the hell country he thought we were living in. Just to review some basic American Civics: If you’re running for an elected position in a democracy and your opponent can rally more citizens who agree with his views than yours, it’s your views that are fucked up, not the People.

Cash Rules Everything Around Me? [6]

Our jaded election-season canard is that elections are bought, plain and simple. In or defense, this cynicism [7] seems to be born out by experience: Elections do tend to go the candidate who’s raised the most money, and it’s easy to construct a narrative whereby spending lots of money results in winning an election. [8]

We all grant the reality of the correlation between campaign spending and winning elections. But correlation isn’t causation. We can all imagine lots of possible mechanisms that would explain how high campaign spending could result in winning elections, but that by no means proves that spending all of that money causes a candidate to win an election. In fact, to the contrary, we’ve got decent evidence that it doesn’t.

Back in 2005 Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (last decade’s Nate Silvers) took this on in their book “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,” and their finding was that elections aren’t won because Candidate X raises and spends the most money, but instead that popular candidates are able to raise the most money. The cash doesn’t buy them votes, but is instead a signal of the votes that they are most assured of receiving. [9]

Every election cycle since 2005 Levitt and Dubner have taken a beating. People don’t like Levitt and Dubner’s “the money doesn’t matter” conclusion, and hasten to point out that if the money doesn’t matter, it’s weird that the candidates expend so much juice and burn so much karma separating us form our cash. And, to give the doubters their due, it’s hard to find clear-cut cases where the Fat Cat doesn’t seem to have at least possibly won by virtue of lucre.

Levitt and Dubner are (nominal) economists. They don’t have the opportunity to devise and run actual experiments and see what happens when, say, you take an emotionally neutral issue (like, oh, I dunno, maybe bridge construction) and run a well-funded campaign encouraging voters to make a terrible decision that no rational person would ever purposefully endorse. If the world of marketing is any indication, a well-funded ad campaign for something of dubious value trounces un-marketed healthy behavior every time, no mater how obvious the healthy choice is. [10]

Oh, wait a second – this year we ran just such an experiment, in the form of Matty Moroun’s odious Prop 6. One side spent upwards of $34 million to run wickedly manipulative video ads and a direct-mail campaign that will go down in the Annals of Excessive Advertising. On top of that, Moroun poured untold dollars (thousands? millions?) into running live phone banks (they called me – and argued with me! And wouldn’t frikkin drop it even as I got sorta spittle-flying-screamy!) and manning polling places on Election Day with folks handing out more misleading “literature.” On the other side, at most $100,000 was spent on a very modest video and print advertising campaign. [11] Maroun spent at least 340 times as much as his opponents – and yet Prop 6 was crushed.

Despite this excellent experiment in how much of an impact money really has on how people vote, I don’t imagine anyone will stop picking fights with the Freakonomics Boys any time soon – for two reasons. First, I think we like cynically carping about how it’s all crooked and that the votes are bought. We’ve made our electoral system into a sort of game show, and so we tune in for much the same reasons: To watch the money (and then to grouse about what a waste all that money was).

Secondly, believing that cash rules everything around us gives us an out. It makes us feel smart for not bothering to really participate – because we see through the bullshit, man. As long as we focus on just the cash-money – and the fact that someone other than you or me or my mom or your neighbor has most of it – we get to ignore our individual failures to bring that Unfinished Work a bit closer to completion. And we get to sidestep the basic question: What have we done to advance the Justice that we, as schoolchildren, pledged was for All?


[1] “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the Unfinished Work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

[2] Sexias was the the head of New Port’s Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, and the most pertinent bit of this letter reads:

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People – a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance – but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine.

[3] Please see tikkun olam for further details.

[4] Which has always struck me as an incredibly selfish way to think about government. Shit, I’m better off than I was four years ago, on balance, but plenty of folks I know aren’t, and plenty more continue to teeter on the brink. Is it really for the best that I vote my best interest? Is that the road to progress?

[5] Stunning in that it exceeded expectations despite census-driven changes in the apportionment of the Electoral College, which shifted about a dozen votes from traditionally blue states to red ones.

[6] Which is the Wu Tang Clan’s gloss of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and abbreviated “C.R.E.A.M.” For the curious, here’s my favorite remix of “C.R.E.A.M.”, which layers the lyrics over the Beatles’ “And I Love Here.”

[7] Still recalling that cynicism is cheap wisdom for dumb people.

[8] Something like “A candidate is a product, like anything else. Whoever raises the most money has the biggest advertising budget and can run the most ads, and thus get the most people to ‘buy’ their product – everyone in the world knows who Ronald McDonald is, and it isn’t because that clown makes the best burger or fries in any given locale.”

Incidentally, when people let this assumption go unquestioned and then defend it when challenged, it sorta makes me wonder if they’re really stupid, or if they think everyone else in the world is really stupid. I mean, is it too much to credit our fellow citizens with just maybe treating their choice of president with a little more gravity than their choice of value meal?

Anyway, if you’re really interested in the myriad ways that this kind of “narrative thinking” leads us astray, check out “The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain” by Daniel Gardner.

[9] How Levitt and Dubner came to this conclusion is a bit too nitty-gritty for me to summarize here – I suggest reading the book, or just hitting this recent interview with one of the authors, which offers a nice, tidy summary of their findings.

[10] Just one quick e.g.: It wasn’t until we mounted huge anti-smoking ad campaigns – and curtailed cigarette advertising via government regulation – that we began to chisel away at a behavior that we’d know for decades was basically a death sentence. See also drunk driving and M.A.D.D.

[11] Incidentally, I’ve yet to meet anyone who saw any anti-Prop 6 material; did you? Did that money even get spent?

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Photos: Local Faces in Obama’s UM Crowd Fri, 27 Jan 2012 23:40:45 +0000 Mary Morgan When the president of the United States comes to town to give a major speech on college affordability, it’s not something we’d want to miss.

Barack Obama

U.S. president Barack Obama, speaking at the University of Michigan’s Al Glick Fieldhouse on Friday morning, Jan. 27. His remarks focused on the issue of education and college affordability. (Photos by Mary Morgan.)

Also not wanting to miss Barack Obama’s appearance at the University of Michigan – a return visit after delivering the commencement address in May of 2010 – were dozens of other national, state and local media. Attention is heightened even more during this election year, and Friday morning’s speech was just one of many stops as Obama hit the road following Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

There will be countless reports and opinions offered on the Jan. 27 speech at UM, but we’d encourage you to approach it unfiltered, at least initially. You can watch the roughly 40-minute speech in its entirety online, or read a transcript of it here.

For Obama’s remarks almost two years ago at the 2010 UM commencement, we provided a bit of our own analysis, along with photos by Myra Klarman.

This time, we went with an eye for recording the community connections we could see at the event. And there were many – not surprisingly for a Democratic stronghold like Ann Arbor. Politicians were easy to spot, of course, but there were also educators, business owners, government workers and many others.

Over 3,000 people attended Friday morning’s speech. Here are a few of those we encountered there.

Eugene Kang, Jeff Irwin, Rebekah Warren, Conan Smith

Eugene Kang, left, lost a close race for a spot on the Ann Arbor city council several years ago – and now has to content himself as the president’s special projects coordinator and assistant. State Rep. Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor, top left, had worked on Kang’s council campaign. In the foreground is state Sen. Rebekah Warren and her husband Conan Smith, chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners.

Susan Pollay

Susan Pollay, director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.

Deborah Ball, Brit Satchwell

Deborah Ball, dean of UM’s School of Education, gets camera instructions from Brit Satchwell, president of the Ann Arbor Education Association, before the president’s speech. Satchwell is standing with Tracey Van Dusen, a Pioneer High School government teacher who was a 2010 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow with the U. S. Department of Education.

Yousef Rabhi, Andy LaBarre

Washtenaw County commissioner Yousef Rabhi (in light blue cap and scarf, with beard) and Andy LaBarre (back right), a candidate for commissioner and former aide to Congressman John Dingell.

Steve Powers

Ann Arbor city administrator Steve Powers had a height advantage over some of the other spectators at the Jan. 27 event.

Jim Kosteva

Jim Kosteva, UM’s director of community relations, glides down the risers.

Jason Brooks

Jason Brooks, a management analyst in the Washtenaw County administrator’s office and a 2011 Ann Arbor Chronicle Bezonki Award winner, got a prime spot next to the stage. 

Man reading the Detroit News

Many people in the crowd were taking photos and texting on their iPhones or other mobile devices and sending the information to the Internet in realtime. But one man passed the minutes waiting for the president by reading an account of the previous day’s news printed off on multiple sheets of paper – a so-called “news paper.”

Media scrum with Arne Duncan

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, leaning over in the center of the huddle, prompted a brief media scrum before the start of Obama’s speech.

Media and crowd

Media photographers stood on risers for a clear view of the speaker’s podium. Photographers in the crowd had to rely on other techniques to get their shots.

Jo Mathis

Jo Mathis, left, takes a “Hail Mary” shot. The former Ann Arbor News columnist is now editor of the Washtenaw Legal News.

Denard Robinson, Debbie Stabenow

University of Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson poses for a photo with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow. The crowd’s cheer for Robinson, who arrived several minutes before the president, nearly rivaled its enthusiasm for Obama. Robinson fielded dozens of autograph and photo requests, including one from a member of the event’s security detail.

Steve Kunselman

Ann Arbor city councilmember Stephen Kunselman, who’s employed by UM as an energy management liaison.

Councilmembers in the crowd

Among the spectators in this crowd shot are Ann Arbor Public Schools superintendent Patricia Green and AAPS trustee Andy Thomas, and Ann Arbor city councilmembers Christopher Taylor, Tony Derezinski and Carsten Hohnke.

Kathy White, Denise Ilitch

From left: University of Michigan regents Kathy White and Denise Ilitch, chair of the board of regents.

Susan Martin, Rose Bellanca

From left: Eastern Michigan University president Susan Martin and Rose Bellanca, president of Washtenaw Community College.

Barack Obama and crowd

Barack Obama during his speech. Trust us: Among the people in the background risers are Ann Arbor city councilmember Sabra Briere and her husband, local attorney David Cahill; Democratic activist Doug Kelley; Ann Arbor Art Center president Marsha Chamberlin and her husband John Chamberlin, a UM professor of public policy.

Mary Sue Coleman

UM president Mary Sue Coleman, at right, listened to Obama’s speech on a platform behind the speaker’s podium. She did not address the crowd.

Obama gives a high five to Mark Bernstein's child

After his speech, Barack Obama worked the crowd. He offers a high five to Mark Bernstein’s kid – Bernstein is a candidate for UM regent.

Sandi Smith, Glenn Nelson

Ann Arbor city councilmember Sandi Smith, center, gets ready to greet the president. Behind her, slightly to the right, is Ann Arbor Public Schools trustee Glenn Nelson.

Anti-fracking and Right-to-Life protesters

Following Obama’s speech, anti-fracking protesters were keeping a cold vigil in the parking lot outside of the Al Glick Fieldhouse. To the right, a man holds an “I Vote Pro-Life First” sign. Volunteers were also passing out Obama re-election campaign literature and collecting signatures for repeal of the state’s emergency financial manager law.

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