Ostensibly President Obama was in Omaha -- nicknamed “Obamaha” for the day -- last Wednesday to tout his economic record, highlight the city’s low unemployment rate and re-cap his State of the Union address from the night before. He was also greeted with adulation by a crowd of approximately 8,000 people at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
– Nerdy Wonka (@NerdyWonka) January 14, 2016
There may have been an unofficial reason for the visit; the city is adjacent to Iowa. In fact, a big chunk of Western Iowa is in the Omaha media market. Obama made one reference to Nebraskans seeing the glut of campaign ads targeting Iowa voters, but there’s no way he’s not aware that Iowans (including me) were in the crowd and watching the media coverage of the event.
Part of the pitch by the Hillary campaign seems to be that her presidency would be a continuation of Obama’s policies. The president’s appearance in Omaha was a subtle way to Iowa tell voters, “Hey, let’s keep it going.”
President Obama began his visit to the Heartland (as we like to call it) by meeting with Lisa Martin, a suburban teacher and mother to a toddler. She wrote him a letter about how she fears for her son Cooper’s future:
“Every night while I wake up to feed my newborn child, Cooper, I catch up on news and read current events. This morning at four A.M., I found myself feeling very distraught. I started reading countless articles about the environment and how your Administration is currently trying to conserve the Alaskan wilderness. While I am so thankful policies are being made for Alaska, I still have this sinking feeling of dread and sadness. Will my son be able to thrive on this planet? Will he be able to experience the small things, such as winter in Nebraska, where he has snowdays and sledding? Where he comes home to me cooking homemade hot cocoa for him, like I did?”
Obama also got in a little playtime with Martin’s son. Martin’s letter and introduction gave the president a way to discuss climate change and give a little shout-out to teachers. Of course, he also schmoozed the Omaha crowd. He talked about Warren Buffett, the UNO hockey team and how the city gave him its single electoral vote in 2008. Mentioning climate change and Joe Biden’s cancer “moonshot,” Obama paraphrased Matt Damon in The Martian saying, “We’re going to science the heck out of it.” He pointed out that the recent Ebola epidemic was contained and eliminated because humanity ‘scienced the heck’ out of it, including the patients who were treated at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Naturally, this got a big cheer from the crowd. We love it when people make us feel good about our little city.
The president was relaxed and playful. He was surrounded by supporters in a University arena and the event felt a lot like a pep rally -- complete with the university bands.
For the thousands of us who waited in the longest line I’ve ever seen #Obamaha was a rare chance to see an American president in person. Albeit from really far away. Of course, I grew up in Iowa where it’s a little less rare to see a president or future president. In fact, we get a bit blasé about it sometimes, but we also take the caucuses and our first-in-the-nation status seriously. For that reason around 600 people showed up on a really chilly morning to see Bill Clinton speak in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The community is adjacent to Omaha.
It’s pretty well known that the polls are tightening in Iowa. Hillary Clinton is sending her big surrogates to squeeze out every last vote and persuade people who are the on the fence. Caucusing is a commitment and far more than just going into a booth and filling in a ballot. We sit with our neighbors and talk about who we’re voting for and why. As a result, grassroots candidates with the most passionate supporters often do very well. Barack Obama trounced Hillary in Iowa in 2008. There’s a chance, especially if there is bad weather and the older people stay home, that Bernie could do the same this year.
Referring to Obama’s State of the Union speech, Bill Clinton reminded the audience that the economy is actually in pretty good shape. Clinton also did what he does so well -- he explained things clearly, empathized with people who are struggling despite a strong economy, and made the case for Hillary as President.
President Clinton brought many in the audience to tears when he pointed out Colleen and Jared Jankovich from Omaha. Inspired by her Autistic son, Matthew, Colleen successfully fought to create a law in Nebraska requiring insurance companies to cover the treatment of autism. The Jankovich family lost Matthew this past September, but they continue to be politically active.
I thought the most interesting part of Clinton’s remarks were his stories about Hillary’s early career. As he said, she was a Yale Law School graduate and woman lawyer at a time when there were few. She could have written her own ticket to a high-paying job, but instead went to Alabama to work at the Children’s Legal Defense fund.
He also outlined her work with legal aid and early childhood education in Arkansas. We already know what she’s been up to for the last 23 years, so I thought it was an effective choice for Bill to talk about her early work and public service. It not only humanizes her, but emphasizes the breadth of Hillary’s experience.
With less than two weeks to go in the Iowa Caucus the Democratic race is still Hillary’s to lose, but with Senator Sanders gaining momentum it’s going to be close.