Amid deafening cheers and bolstered by energy reminiscent of a campaign rally, President Barack Obama took the stage at the West Wilkes High School shortly after 5 p.m. Monday to talk about the economy and to push the American Jobs Act.
Obama's visit to Wilkes was part of a three-day bus tour through North Carolina. He landed on Air Force One and spoke in Asheville, had lunch at a barbecue restaurant in Marion and made a stop at the Mast General Store on King Street in Boone before heading to Wilkes. He went from here to spend the night in Greensboro, where he visited schools and spoke with teachers and students before heading toward Virginia on Tuesday.
Obama thanked Wilkes Superintendent of Schools Stephen Laws for introducing him, and recognized West Principal Wayne Shepherd, North Carolina Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson before launching into his speech.
"Now, I'm down here today because I decided it was time to get out of Washington," Obama told the crowd of some 2,000. "I wanted to hit the open road and come visit some of the most beautiful parts of this great country of ours."
He said he was asked by someone why he comes to North Carolina as much as he does. "I said there is just something-the people of North Carolina are so nice. They are gracious and they are kind, and even the folks who don't vote for me are nice."
With the crowd roaring it approval, Obama, launching into the reason for his visit, said, "I also thought it would be good to hear from all of you, because it seems as if your voices aren't being heard in Washington right now."
"This is a tough time for Americans," he said. "Here in North Carolina, a lot of folks have spent months looking for work. Others are doing their best to scrape by. You give up night with the family to save on gas or make the mortgage. Folks (are) postponing their retirement so they can send their kids to college."
"Now, I think we all understand most of these problems were not caused overnight," Obama said. "We've been dealing with some of these problems for a decade now," with "manufacturing (jobs) leaving America to go overseas," and "a health care system that didn't work and put burdens on families and businesses," he said.
The audience burst into applause as the president noted, "We haven't had an energy policy in this country that makes sense and frees ourselves from dependence on foreign oil."
He also noted that solutions to the issues facing the country aren't immediate. "It's going to take time to rebuild an America where we restore a sense of security for our middle class families, and opportunity for folks who are trying to get into the middle class-and America with an economy that's built to last and built to compete."
Obama said he sent Congress the American Jobs Act, shunned by Republicans last week in Congress, because "there are things we can do right now to put people back to work," help the middle class and "give our economy the jolt that it needs."
"We need to pass this bill," the president said, noting that "this is the kind of bill that in the past would have been supported by Democrats and Republicans."
It's completely paid for," and only asks that millionaires "pay a bit more... so that we can help folks who are struggling to get by," Obama told the crowd.
He pointed out that "independent economists have said this jobs bill would create nearly 2 million jobs (and) grow the economy by nearly two extra percentage points." "but there are some folks in Washington who just aren't listening," Obama said.
The audience booed loudly when the president noted that "Republicans in the Senate got together and blocked the jobs bill" last week. "They refused to even debate it," he said.
"Now keep in mind, one poll showed that about 63 percent of Americans support the ideas in this jobs bill," Obama said. "So why is it that 100 percent of Republicans in the Senate voted against it? It doesn't make any sense."
"It's not a Democratic jobs act. It's not a Republican jobs act. It's the American Jobs Act," Obama said.
He noted that the Republicans have come up with a plan they are calling the "Real American Jobs Act." Accompanied by laughter from the audience, Obama said his response was "All right, you don't get points for originality, but let's see what you've got."
He said Republicans, with their plan, would "gut environmental regulations. They want to roll back Wall Street reform so that we end up with the same financial system... that got us into this mess in the first place. And they want to repeal health care reform so that 30 million people won't have health insurance."
Sarcastically, Obama said, "That is what they call their ‘Real American Jobs Act.' It's inspiring stuff."
Obama said it is time to put aside partisan politics "and take some common sense steps to help America."
He said his jobs act would "put hundreds of thousands of police officers and fire fighters and teachers back on the job," including 13,000 education jobs in North Carolina, which has seen severe cuts by the General Assembly in Raleigh.
The president further pointed out that his jobs bill would provide for fixing bridges, roads and other parts of America's crumbling infrastructure. In doing so, thousands of construction workers would be employed, he said.
"I know that sometimes everybody watches television and you see what's going on in Washington," Obama said. "But I just want you to remember that we've gone through tougher times before. We are going to get through this, and we're going to get through it together. Because Americans don't quit."
"Let's show the world once again why the United States of America is the greatest nation on earth," he said.
After his speech, and surrounded by Secret Service agents, the president came down from the podium to shake hands with those in the audience on the front row for an extended period of time.
Obama exited back into the school and was gone within minutes. Those in attendance were prevented from leaving until the presidential motorcade had been gone for about 10 minutes.
Security was very high at the event, with Secret Service agents standing in and around the crowd. Local law enforcement officers assisted with the effort. Everyone entering the gym had to empty all pockets and be scanned with a metal detector. Dogs used to sniff explosives were also used to search the high school.
The gym was very warm, and increasingly so as the crowd grew. Several people became ill because of the heat and were treated by paramedics on hand.
Reactions to Obama's visit and speech were varied directly after the event.
Keith Lankford, an assistant football coach at West Wilkes said, "I loved it," he said of the speech. "I'm ready for something to get done" about the economy. "The arguing (in Congress) is a turn-off. There is an impasse. He noted that he teaches his own players that "we have to work together or we won't be successful" and said Congress needs to adopt this approach.
North Wilkesboro Commissioner Jeffrey Elmore said, "It's an honor to have the president come to our county. With 8 percent unemployment, it's hard times.
Elmore, however, said he disagrees with the American Jobs Act. "Government doesn't create jobs, the private sector does," he said.
North Wilkesboro Town Manager Hank Perkins said, "I was impressed. The man can give a good speech. He is definitely a good orator.
Perkins said he thought it took courage for Obama to bring his message to a vastly Republican area such as Wilkes County. He said the president's comments will spur him to do more research on the national economy.
Keith Huffman, a lifelong Republican from a Republican family and a West Wilkes graduate, said, "He's our president. We've got to support him, no matter what his politics." Huffman said he was proud that his high school alma mater was the first to host an elected president. He noted that President Gerald Ford, who visited in 1976, was filling out the term of President Richard Nixon, who had resigned.
Dave Moulton, treasurer of the Democratic Party in Wilkes, said, "I couldn't be more excited." He speculated that Obama came here because this county is typical of the high unemployment and poverty going on across the nation right now.
"If this doesn't fire up the (Democratic) base, I don't know what will," Moulton said.
Wilkes Democratic Party Chairperson Treva Johnson, a volunteer at the event, said, "It was exactly what we expected: an inspiring speech. If we need to make a change, we need to start at the grassroots and work our way up, and that's what (Obama) said."
Susan Burnette, a West alumnus who now lives in Moravian Falls, said, "I thought he was wonderful. It was a very bipartisan speech, and I don't think anyone could disagree with what he said."
Ms. Burnette said, at age 12, she was also at West Wilkes when Ford spoke.
Anita Turner of Wilkesboro said, "This was something wonderful. I was here at 10 a.m. on Sunday to get tickets, but this was worth the wait.
"This has all been a great experience," she said. "The security was good, and everyone helped in any way they could. It wasn't chaotic at all."
"The speech was wonderful," she added. "It's like the president said, we all have to help each other. He can't do it all by himself, and he can't do it in one term."
Krista LaPlante, a junior at West, sang the national anthem and the West Wilkes dance team performed before the president took the stage. The West Wilkes marching band also performed patriotic music and the school's fight song.