AUSTIN, Texas — Taking a page from Harry Truman’s successful 1948 campaign against a “do-nothing Congress,” a loose and acerbic President Barack Obama on Thursday challenged Republicans in Congress to “do something.”
“If you’re mad at me for helping people on my own, let’s team up,” Obama said before an adoring crowd of nearly 1,300 people who packed the Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin for his speech. “Let’s pass some bills. Let’s help America together. It is lonely, me just doing stuff. I’d love if the Republicans did stuff, too.”
“And I want to work with them,” Obama insisted. “I don’t expect them to agree with me on everything, but at least agree with me on the things that you used to say you were for before I was for them. You used to be for building roads and infrastructure. Nothing has changed. Let’s go ahead and do it. Ronald Reagan passed immigration reform, and you love Ronald Reagan. Let’s go ahead and do it.”
Obama’s midday speech was the emotional high point of the president’s two days in Texas, which was focused on raising money to help Democratic candidates nationally heading into November’s midterm elections.
He had arrived in Austin from Dallas at 9:40 p.m. Wednesday and headed straight to filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’s castle-like home in Pemberton Heights for a high-dollar fundraiser. Just before the stroke of midnight, he was at his hotel – the Sheraton downtown. Thursday began with another Democratic National Committee fundraiser at the West Austin home of Aimee Boone Cunningham. While reporters were able to listen to Obama’s remarks at Wednesday night’s event, Thursday’s was closed to the media.
Obama took a lot of heat from Republicans and some Democrats for not taking time while in Texas to visit the Mexican border to see first-hand the repercussions of the massive influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America.
“This isn’t theater,” Obama said Wednesday in Dallas, rebuffing the calls for him to go to the border. “This is a problem. I’m not interested in photo ops.”
But Obama’s performance at the Paramount was great political theater.
Maybe it was the palpable mutual affection with his Austin audience.
“We love you,” were the first words shouted at him when he bounded onto the stage, sans jacket, his shirt sleeves rolled up.
“That’s because I love you,” the president replied. “Everybody knows I love Austin, Texas.”
Or maybe it was the particular political moment – six years into his presidency, frustrated with Washington gridlock and Republicans threatening to take control of the Senate.
Whatever it was, in his speech at the Paramount, Obama got his 2008 campaign groove back.
“It is great to play at the Paramount,” the president said. “I think I finally made it.”
Gone was any trace of an aloof or professorial president wallowing in a second-term slump.
Obama appeared weary — he admitted to being tired from his exhausting schedule — and exhilarated, leaning into his remarks and reviving themes of hope and change that had catapulted him into history. But now they were being delivered by a president, his hair well-flecked with gray, with the tempered edge of hard experience, laying into congressional Republicans who, he said, are more intent on breaking him than bettering America.
“I’m just telling the truth now. I don’t have to run for office again, so I can just let her rip,” Obama said.
The good news, he said, is that Republicans haven’t shut the government down this year, “but, of course, it’s only July.”
Republicans, he said, are furious with him for going it alone after they have scuttled what he considers simple ways to ease people’s struggles.
“Now, I don’t know which things they find most offensive – me helping to create jobs, or me raising wages, or me easing the student loan burdens, or me making sure women can find out whether they’re getting paid the same as men for doing the same job,” he said. “I don’t know which of these actions really bug them.”
“Maybe it’s just me they don’t like. I don’t know,” Obama said. “Maybe there’s some principle out there that I haven’t discerned, that I haven’t figured out. You hear some of them – ‘sue him,’ ‘impeach him.’ Really? Really? For what? You’re going to sue me for doing my job? OK.”
Obama drove the point home with a little Martin Scorsese.
“There’s a great movie called ‘The Departed’ – a little violent for kids,” Obama said. “But there’s a scene in the movie where Mark Wahlberg – they’re on a stakeout and somehow the guy loses the guy that they’re tracking. And Wahlberg is all upset and yelling at the guy. And the guy looks up and he says, ‘Well, who are you?’ And Wahlberg says, ‘I’m the guy doing my job. You must be the other guy.’ Sometimes, I feel like saying to these guys, ‘I’m the guy doing my job, you must be the other guy.’”
Throughout his speech, the president’s words were met with shouted affirmations from the audience — “Come on now,” and “Come on with it.”
“I felt like we were in church,” said Frank Alexander Sr., 79, of Cedar Creek, whose daughter, Debbie Alexander-Lucas of Pflugerville, had stood in line overnight with her daughter and cousin to get tickets, and, because it was one to a customer, paid two homeless people to stand in line with them so she could get a pair for her elderly parents.
“It was like a Baptist preacher’s sermon,” her father said. “Yes sir. Obama set it on fire.”
For her part, Alexander-Lucas was in tears.