Just in case you didn’t hear about it, President Barack Obama visited Los Angeles for the first time since he was sworn in and held a town hall meeting at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex near downtown. It was the first time I saw him speak in person. Before he took the stage, the assembly was exactly as I expected—from the heavy Secret Security detail (bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors, men with ear pieces in nice suites) to the expectant crowd that surrounded the complex gym. Inside, political VIPS like Speaker of the Assembly Karen Bass, Police Chief Bill Bratton, and Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis schmoozed before taking their seats. Maria Shriver and her sons made a Hollywood last-minute entrance before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger took the stage. There was spontaneous applause, there were peppy O-BAM-A cheers, and there was Obama gear—shirts, hats, pins, stickers—everywhere.
Oh, yes, there was also President Barack Obama. With a polite “thank you” and a flash of that great smile, he harnessed all the energy in the room. His opening was familiar but the audience was fresh, and as he settled into prepared talking points about the economic crisis, public outrage over AIG executive bonuses, his proposed federal budget, and the importance of education, Obama picked up steam—and the audience relaxed. In the second half of the meeting, he took a handful of unscreened questions—some easy, some challenging, and some that required “truth telling,” (that’s how he put it) on his part. The questions ranged from the mortgage crisis and job creation to how he plans to better incorporate the disabled into the labor force, and Obama made his move. He answered each person slowly, turning the spotlight away from himself and onto California and Los Angeles’s unique challenges and needs. He urged everyone to stay involved, to continue paying attention to government action, and to keep today’s conversation alive. He made the meeting about us.
As the forum ended and people filed out into the sun shaking each other’s hands, it hit me that I had gotten it wrong: the experience was nothing like I had expected. I counted on Obama to pump everyone up. Instead, he offered a sense of purpose. The audience calmly walked to their cars, talking as if this was the first of many opportunities to tell the president of the United States what was on their minds and that to ask pointed and personal questions would be possible again soon. Like he was a neighbor, a teacher, a friend. What a sweet surprise.
Photograph by Forest Casey