Obama in Bristol

Sen. Barack Obama made his first campaign stop since claiming the Democratic Party nomination Bristol, Virginia.
Photo: Lauren Linn

Even in ninety-degree heat, a long line of people stretched around Virginia High School in Bristol, VA, June 5th, as Senator Barack Obama kicked off his campaign for President of the United States. I was among the crowd, curious to see what reaction Obama would receive from this demographic – the people he had failed to woo in the primary. Crowd or no crowd, something just did not seem right.

I walked the considerable hike from my car and began to wonder if I were headed to a University of Virginia football game (UVA is in Charlottesville, 250 miles away). Lots of cars had UVA plates and stickers, and many other cars were not from the area (visible from other window decals and license plates). Granted there were numerous attendees from the area, but I was surprised there were so many from other places, not the local rural towns. It seemed as though every Obama fan not from Southwest Virginia had come to the town hall meeting.

After asking a campaign organizer for two tickets, having not RSVP’d as I was supposed to, I stood in the long line. I expected to be surrounded by Obama shirts, activists, groups of supporters, but that was not the case. I stood in front of a man decked in J.Crew and a UVA hat. So was Obama actually going to have to answer to the sorts of people who hadn’t voted for him in the primary? Or was the audience there going to be more college-educated than the local blue-collar workers, those who are looking for economic and health care reforms?

I entered the gym to find no one holding Obama signs and only a few t-shirts, but a still very enthusiastic crowd. In the moments waiting for the presumptive nominee to appear, the chant “Yes We Can” struggled to take over the gym — only with complete success just prior to Obama’s entrance. It was then the appeal to rural, working-class America began.

Former Governor Mark Warner, graduate of George Washington University and Harvard Law, addressed the crowd: “When I ran, I was the cell-phone man from the North (referring to his early investments in Nextel and work to co-found Capital Cellular Corporation) and you took a chance and elected me. Now I am asking you to do the same for [Obama].” Drawing on his immense popularity, thanks to his successes as Virginia governor, Warner’s endorsement seemed to make Obama more like the locals than a Columbia-Harvard man.

As Warner introduced Senator Obama, the gym was engulfed in cheers. After a standard introduction — one any candidate might have made, about resolving the war in Iraq, dealing with a worsening economy, ending partisanship in Washington and lifting up the nation — Obama addressed what he thought was the most pressing concern for this lower-income, working class audience: health care.

He talked about the single moms who “could get health insurance for their kids, but can’t get health insurance for themselves.” Obama told how he had met people who are getting sicker as they can’t afford to buy the medicines they’ve been prescribed, because “there is a big donut hole in their prescription drug plans.”

It was then the crowd became die-hard Obama supporters, cheering as he tore down drug companies and attempted to build up the average American who, he said, deserves a universal health care system.

In a bold statement, Obama promised that within his first year in office there would be health insurance available to all Americans. After being given a hand-made walking stick by a ninety-five year old African-American man during the town hall meeting, Obama jokingly told the crowd, “Well, if members of Congress won’t pass my health care legislation, here we go (shaking the stick).”

The town hall meeting ended with a series of questions continuing to revolve around health and medical care.

virginina primary map
In February’s Democratic primary, Southwest Virginia voted heavily for Sen. Hillary Clinton; in Bristol, Clinton beat Obama 67% to 32%.
Map: Electiongeography.com

All in all, it was a meeting filled with political jargon and promises for change, specifically in the area of health. There was no room for partisanship in the first part of the speech, but thereafter Obama, as expected, downgraded the Republicans’ proposals. As big ideas were thrown around in Virginia High School gym, I sat wondering, where are the plans? I wasn’t the only one. A woman asked Obama, “How are you going to take these good ideas and turn them into action?” He answered by telling her it would start with the people in his administration, those who’ll be working with him. That seemed to be his only direct answer on health.

As for taxes, he bluntly told the crowd if you were making around $200,000 or more “you will pay more taxes with me, and that’s a fact, including myself.” But he told the members of the audience making twenty-five, or fifty, or seventy-five thousand dollars a year, they were going to pay lower taxes. There it was. That statement was what blue-collar, working class, rural Americans were looking for. While it is true the those making more are already paying a higher percentage of taxes, citizens making less are obviously going to be thrilled to hear a politician say “tax cut.” The gym was in full support and didn’t seem unbelievers at all.

At the end of the town hall meeting, I was still uncertain as to Obama’s plan to help rural, hard-working Americans. I knew the overall goals, but how was he going to achieve them? There may have been others like me, still wondering, but the crowd’s response suggested otherwise. Sure, they might not know how Obama would reach these goals but they seemed to come away with “health care for all” and a belief that they would be treated fairly in the changes he plans for the economy.

As I left I pondered if Obama could win over white, rural, blue-collar Americans. He clearly is not the same as these men and women, even if he attempted to look like them: that was evident throughout the Democratic primary. The response yesterday at Virginia High School was strong and positive, and must have been encouraging to the Obama camp. Maybe, just maybe, there were enough college-educated wealthier voters in that gym to make it work out that way.

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