On Thursday morning, President Obama took his push for financial reform to the lion's den: New York City. In the Great Hall of Cooper Union, a college located a scant few miles from Wall Street, he presented his case before an enthusiastic crowd of students and local politicians, arguing for a regulatory bill designed to "build a new foundation for economic growth in the 21st century."
It isn't hard to figure out why Obama wanted to visit Cooper Union: the Great Hall has a rich history as a center for public debate. Eight Presidents have spoken from its stage, as have notables ranging from Frederick Douglass to Henry Kissinger, Ted Kennedy to Samuel Gompers. Its most famous speaker is probably Abraham Lincoln, whose February 1860 speech propelled him into the national consciousness and laid the groundwork for his Presidential run later that year.
The first time Obama spoke in the Great Hall was in March 2008. A candidate for the Presidency at the time, he was quick to acknowledge the importance of the place, both for American history and for his own story. Gazing out over the audience, he noted that "The last time an Illinois politician made a speech here, it was pretty good." He smiled, admitting "I want everyone to know right at the outset here that this may not be living for generations to come, the way Lincoln's speech did."
Strong Sense of Déjà Vu
Today's speech carried a strong sense of déjà vu. Once again, Obama discussed Wall Street and Main Street, the economy and the struggles of homeowners, the need to balance regulation with responsibility. In 2008, he drew attention to Paul Volcker, who was sitting in the audience. On Thursday, he again acknowledged the former Fed chairman, noting that the proposed safeguards include the "Volcker Rule," which would limit the size of banks and the risks that they can take.
In the soft light of the Great Hall, the crowd's mood bordered on reverent, the silence of the auditorium only broken by the whir and click of cameras and the stern tones of the President. Yet for all its solemnity, the crowd was energized, often bursting into applause, especially in the few occasions when Obama let his professorial facade slip.
Addressing opponents who argued that the proposed reforms would "enable or encourage future taxpayer bailouts," the President noted that the claim "may make for a good sound bite, but it's not factually accurate." As the audience tepidly clapped, he departed from the pre-released text of his speech, proclaiming "It's not TRUE." The crowd erupted.
Criticized for Appearing Too Analytical
Obama has been criticized for his tendency to appear bloodless and overly analytical. True or not, the crowd in Cooper Union was eager to hear emotion from their chief executive. When he told them that a vote for reform was a vote to end bailouts, they burst into applause and cheers. Later, when he noted that "this plan would enact the strongest consumer financial protections ever," the audience went wild.
Outside, the crowd cluttering the sidewalk was calm and restrained. Tea Party 365, a New York group, has been promising to picket Obama's speech, but the police cordon extended for several blocks in every direction, making it hard to mount a strong protest. Looking for picketers, protesters or anyone who wasn't sporting an Obama glow and a beatific smile, I asked a pair of police officers if they'd seen anyone. They sternly shook their heads: "No, no protesters. Besides, what is there to protest?"
New York's boys (and girls) in blue tend to be a tight-lipped, taciturn crew, but when the pair found out that I'd been inside, the hard cop faces crumbled and I found myself talking to two unabashed fans. Within seconds, they had me recapping the key parts of the speech. "Man, I'm glad I got a fixed-rate mortgage" one noted, her fellow officer echoing an emphatic "uh-HUH." Before I could get away, the two had me recounting the feel of the room, telling them about how close I had gotten to the President, and what the hall felt like.
Only a Handful of Picketers
While there didn't seem to be an organized effort to picket the President, a few disaffected protesters managed to make the scene. A small crowd of Lyndon LaRouche organizers crowded a nearby street corner, clustered around a poster of Obama sporting a Hitler mustache. Angrily buttonholing pedestrians, they declared that the Afghanistan war is actually a colonial war in support of the British Empire, that the proposed health-care plan bears a startling resemblance to Hitler's policies and that Western civilization is in immediate danger of apocalyptic destruction. But passers-by gave the LaRouche supporters wide berth.
Other protesters offered more measured critiques. One man, carrying a Revolutionary War-era "Don't Tread On Me" flag, argued out that the current deficit spending is irresponsible and is endangering America's economic future. Another declared that Obama's plan is actually a plot to move financial jobs to Chicago, destroying New York's economy. A woman handed out orange ribbons, drawing attention to the President's delay in closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, while a wild-eyed protester proclaimed Obama a traitor and advocated a return to the old-fashioned values advocated by Che Guevara.
Cooper Union's rich historical heritage is closely tied to McSorley's Ale House, a modest, shabby bar located just around the corner. After his famous speech in 1860, Abraham Lincoln grabbed a beer there. The little hole in the wall has hardly changed in the last century and a half and, as owner Matthew Maher points out, it still serves the same light ale that the Great Emancipator used to whet his whistle.
While an Obama fan, Maher admitted that he was relieved that the President decided against following in the steps of his fellow Illinoisan. After all, a visit from the chief executive would have shut down the bar for much of the day. Commenting on Obama's speech, Maher offered the kind of vague, politic answer that is the hallmark of a good bartender -- or a good politician: "It's like when you're sick and you fight to get well again. We're fighting. We're gonna fight and we're gonna be fine."
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