President Obama waves to the crowd in Ann Arbor
President Obama waves to the crowd in Ann Arbor (Photo: Matt Villeneuve/NPI)

Edi­tor’s Note: Matt Vil­leneuve is a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan who has interned with the Nation­al Park Ser­vice and The White House. He holds a Mas­ter’s Degree in Social Sciences/U.S. His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and a B.A. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon. The team at NPI is delight­ed to wel­come him to the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate and thanks him for rep­re­sent­ing us as our cor­re­spon­dent in Ann Arbor, cov­er­ing today’s get out the vote events.

On the eve of the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, two kinds of fog greet­ed Pres­i­dent Oba­ma in Michi­gan today. The first kind was the fog that deposits dew on the grass, leaves car win­dows opaque,  and sends your hands search­ing for pock­ets in the ear­ly morn­ing air. The sec­ond is of the elec­toral kind.

After FBI Direc­tor James Comey hand­ed Repub­li­cans a gift in the form of a let­ter reveal­ing the Bureau was review­ing emails from a com­put­er shared by Antho­ny Wein­er and Clin­ton advis­er Huma Abe­din, the Clin­ton cam­paign found their com­fort­able lead here in Michi­gan dwindling.

The clar­i­ty of Octo­ber 21st — when Clin­ton was up 11.6 points over Trump — has large­ly dis­ap­peared. Michi­gan has sup­port­ed the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee for Pres­i­dent for many cycles now, but Hillary For Amer­i­ca is not tak­ing the state for granted.

Only one day before the elec­tion, Michi­gan has sud­den­ly become a bat­tle­ground state again, with Clin­ton up over Trump by only 4.7 points. At this eleventh hour of the cam­paign, the Clin­ton camp has ordered a full-court press on Michigan.

With Hillary in Grand Rapids and for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton in the state cap­i­tal of Lans­ing, it was up to Chelsea and Barack to make the case to Ann Arbor and the thou­sands of mil­len­ni­al vot­ers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michigan.

Waiting for Obama
Ral­ly atten­dees (Pho­to: Matt Villeneuve/NPI)

If there is any­thing that this son of Wash­ing­ton knows, it’s the capac­i­ty of fog — and rain — in spoil­ing a good day’s weath­er. Quite less famil­iar to me, how­ev­er, is the feel­ing of being in a bat­tle­ground state on the eve of a pres­i­den­tial election.

While the TV spots, bill­boards, and radio ads exist here in Michi­gan in a quan­ti­ty unknown back home, the oth­er­wise per­ni­cious bom­bard­ment of cam­paign noise has one perk: the atten­tion of the principals.

So it was that, with an HFA press cre­den­tial in hand, I made my way into Ray Fish­er sta­di­um on the cam­pus of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan to observe what it was like to be at a cam­paign ral­ly with the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States in a bat­tle­ground state just twen­ty-four hours pri­or to the last day of this unprece­dent­ed election.

I was not alone. The cam­paign had released tick­ets for more than 4,000 atten­dees, and the line start­ed form­ing at the first base line before around 7 AM.

Out­side the sta­di­um, a long line snaked down past the rail­road tracks. A band of #NoDAPL pro­tes­tors chant­ed and banged on drums to the nods of affir­ma­tion by the crowd. Inside, the field had been tak­en over by the typ­i­cal­ly ral­ly para­pher­na­lia: sec­tions of fenc­ing, secu­ri­ty check­points, and ris­ers for the press.

The speak­ing podi­um bear­ing the seal of the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States was sit­u­at­ed on the third-base line — a fit­ting place usu­al­ly reserved for the likes of Kyle Sea­ger, now the stage was a new “hot cor­ner” for these Demo­c­ra­t­ic speak­ers. The sta­di­um was at full capac­i­ty for Oba­ma’s sched­uled noon­time speech by 10 AM.

A packed house for President Obama
Panora­ma of Ray Fish­er Sta­di­um (Pho­to: Nicole Navarro)

Once inside, the assem­bled gath­er­ing had near­ly two hours to wait for POTUS — the press’ often-used nick­name for the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States — to arrive.

It was a typ­i­cal Ann Arbor crowd and a mot­ley crew mar­shaled to sup­port Hillary: among the crowd could be seen vet­er­ans of the Kore­an War ball­caps, a cow­boy hat, a USS New Jer­sey jack­et  (a long­time mem­ber of the Bre­mer­ton moth­ball fleet), head­scarves, a Nez Perce vest, and a Clin­ton cam­paign hood­ie sport­ing the slo­gan “Michi­gan Hus­tles Hard­er” com­plete with a pun­ny hash­tag, #MIshecan.

Rally attendees
The crowd at the ral­ly with Pres­i­dent Oba­ma (Pho­to: Matt Villeneuve/NPI)

Around me in the press area were a fac­ul­ty mem­ber who teach­es jour­nal­ism, a free­lance pho­tog­ra­ph­er for Politi­co, a reporter for Reuters bang­ing away on his lap­top, and high school jour­nal­ism stu­dent there cov­er­ing the event for his school news­pa­per. A near­by TV cor­re­spon­dent who spoke into a micro­phone for his own news­cast set the nar­ra­tive for the whole press corps:

The prob­lem here for Hillary is that her poll num­bers have real­ly slipped… Clin­ton was up as high as eleven points in this state, though her lead is now only around five…

Though the crowd had assem­bled for the com­mon attrac­tion of the Pres­i­dent in Ann Arbor, it also be proved to be a cap­tive audi­ence for oth­er speakers.

While Oba­ma was the main course, the ral­ly audi­ence was treat­ed to a series of appe­tiz­ers: local rep­re­sen­ta­tives, can­di­dates for the UMich board of regents, and Michi­gan sen­a­tors. Deb­bie Din­gle, rep­re­sent­ing the 12th Dis­trict of Michi­gan in which Ann Arbor resides, kicked the day off by set­ting the stakes.

“I am pleased that Pres­i­dent Oba­ma is here in Michi­gan to fin­ish the cam­paign,” she said. “I’m not old, I’m sea­soned. We hear every year that this is the most impor­tant elec­tion of our life­times, but this year it real­ly is, and let us nev­er see one like it ever again.” The crowd agreed.

Wider view of the rally
A packed Ray Fish­er Sta­di­um (Pho­to: Matt Villeneuve/NPI)

Lar­ry Deitch, run­ning for re-elec­tion to the UMich Board of Regents implored atten­dees to “join hands in a coali­tion of decen­cy to reject fear and big­otry,” and his col­league Denise Illitch announced: “I agree the with the First Lady and I quote her when I say edu­ca­tion is the most impor­tant ele­ment for free­dom and equality.”

In addi­tion to the kind of sol­i­dar­i­ty talk found in many  polit­i­cal ral­lies in safe­ly blue states like Wash­ing­ton and Ore­gon, uni­fy­ing all of these speech­es was the added rhetoric of elec­toral lever­age. Here the crowd was exhort­ed not just to sup­port Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates in down bal­lot races, but to get out the vote for Hillary.

Solomon Rajput, a Clin­ton cam­paign field orga­niz­er, gushed with great sin­cer­i­ty and eager­ness about the home­li­ness of his fam­i­ly: a moth­er who left lov­ing notes in his lunch box and a father that always tried to pay the bill at din­ner for guests.

His fam­i­ly was the same as many oth­ers in the crowd, he insist­ed, save for one thing: “In Don­ald Trump’s Amer­i­ca, my Mus­lim fam­i­ly would not be wel­come here.” Solomon laid out the obvi­ous cal­cu­lus: “There’s a rea­son Trump and Pence are here in Michi­gan. A day before the elec­tion. It’s because Michi­gan matters!”

His voice cracked in excite­ment as he spoke. “The eyes of the world [are] on Michi­gan. Let’s show them what we got!”

Con­gress­woman Bren­da Lawrence of Michi­gan’s 14th Dis­trict had a sim­i­lar mes­sage for poten­tial bat­tle­ground vot­ers. Her refrain was “I still believe” — and she charged the crowd with keep­ing faith that if Amer­i­ca was a place where it was pos­si­ble to elect a black man to the Oval Office, it could elect a woman as President.

“I still believe,” she repeat­ed, “And as a woman and an African-Amer­i­can, I have a lot to lose!” The crowd cheered.

Then Lawrence per­haps best epit­o­mized the rather priv­i­leged posi­tion of a bat­tle­ground state when she said, “When God made the world, on the sev­enth day, he rest­ed and put his hand down on the earth and made Michi­gan.” (Michi­gan is often referred to as The Mit­ten due to its geography.)

I had to laugh. If the eyes of the world, the hand of God, and Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma were in your state in the same twen­ty-four hour peri­od, you sure couldn’t argue that your vote didn’t matter.

Michi­gan’s U.S. Sen­a­tor Gary Peters gave the most fiery speech of them all. “Who would’ve thought that Michi­gan would decide the elec­tion?” he began.

“The entire coun­try will be watch­ing the State of Michi­gan and they will see not only did we win for Clin­ton, but we won big.”

After Peters left the stage, music played while the crowd wait­ed for the president’s arrival. The sky was clear­ing and the sun was com­ing out. At one point, a cheer from the crowd went up to her­ald the arrival of the pres­i­dent, but it was premature.

“False alarm,” the word went around. “It’s just Har­baugh.” A series of foot­ball chants fol­lowed for Ann Arbor’s sec­ond largest celebri­ty of the day.

Final­ly, just past noon, the pres­i­den­tial motor­cade arrived and Chelsea Clin­ton took the stage to intro­duce the Pres­i­dent. She described how it was up to vot­ers to decide “if Stronger Togeth­er is just a cam­paign slo­gan or an ethos of our values.”

Chelsea Clinton speaking
Chelsea Clin­ton intro­duces Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma (Pho­to: Matt Villeneuve/NPI)

She described her moth­er with great pride and enu­mer­at­ed all the pro­gres­sive caus­es for which she stood. “If you want to pro­tect the progress of Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, progress that he’s not giv­en enough cred­it for, then you’ve got to vote,” she insist­ed. With great acclaim, POTUS then took the stage.

The Pres­i­den­t’s remarks were part stump-speech, part char­ac­ter ref­er­ence for Hillary. “I’m feel­ing sen­ti­men­tal. This will be my last day of cam­paign­ing for a while,” Oba­ma said. He began with grat­i­tude: “I want to say thank you to so many grass­roots orga­niz­ers who pick up phones, hit the streets — you are the best orga­niz­ers on the plan­et, and I am here today because of you.”

President Obama speaks in Ann Arbor
Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma address­es a big crowd in Ann Arbor, urg­ing sup­port for Hillary Clin­ton (Pho­to: Matt Villeneuve/NPI)

“Think about where we were eight years ago… I just real­ize some of you were ten.” The pres­i­dent then went on to men­tion by name a range of Dis­ney Chan­nel shows, each title met with great laugh­ter from the audi­ence, clear­ly a form of mil­len­ni­al pan­der­ing. Nev­er­the­less, it brought out many smiles.

The Pres­i­dent then chron­i­cled all of the pro­gres­sive caus­es that had been cham­pi­oned by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty over the last two terms. The list should by now be long and famil­iar: the Recov­ery Act, the Patient Pro­tec­tion Act, the Paris cli­mate accord, the death of Osama bin Laden, mar­riage equal­i­ty, and so on.

How­ev­er, among all the applause and cel­e­bra­tion, the Pres­i­dent offered a warn­ing: “All that progress goes down the drain if we don’t vote.”

Tak­ing a dig at Don­ald Trump in ways the name at the top of the tick­et can­not, the Pres­i­dent spent a good por­tion of his speech on the attack.

“I’ve seen what makes Amer­i­ca great,” the Pres­i­dent said. “Don­ald Trump is tem­pera­men­tal­ly unfit to be Com­man­der-in-Chief. Did you hear this week­end that his cam­paign took away his Twit­ter account? Can you imag­ine him with the nuclear codes?” This was an effec­tive laugh line, but Oba­ma lobbed his sharpest barb of crit­i­cism against Don­ald Trump on the ques­tion of the fate of work­ing-class people.

“Do not be bam­boo­zled. In his sev­en­ty years on this earth, the Don­ald has nev­er shown respect for work­ing peo­ple. It isn’t clear he even knows work­ing peo­ple save for those who clean his hotels and mow the lawns of his golf courses.”

The Pres­i­dent then seemed to address the dif­fi­cul­ty that both he and Hillary Clin­ton face in get­ting the sup­port of most­ly white work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ties, some of which are largest in places like Michigan.

“Don­ald Trump said, ‘Let them go bank­rupt,’ ” the Pres­i­dent remind­ed the audi­ence, ref­er­enc­ing the coun­try’s biggest automak­ers, which were res­cued by his admin­is­tra­tion. “To every autowork­er on the line, bar­keep­er, or small busi­ness own­er, I think I’ve earned some cred­i­bil­i­ty here.”

He added, “Don­ald Trump is unique­ly unqual­i­fied for this office… but the good news is, Michi­gan, is that you are unique­ly qual­i­fied to make sure he doesn’t!”

Oba­ma end­ed his speech like so many oth­ers he’s giv­en — by call­ing to mind our finest tra­di­tion­al val­ues and high­est demo­c­ra­t­ic ideals. Oba­ma urged all present to shake off the cyn­i­cism of this entire cam­paign cycle, sat­u­rat­ed by what the Pres­i­dent decried as “a dust cloud of nonsense.”

He then returned to mak­ing the case that Hillary Clin­ton is a true progressive.

Estab­lish­ing her pro­gres­sive bona fides, he implored his Ann Arbor audi­ence: “What­ev­er cred­i­bil­i­ty I’ve earned over eight years as your pres­i­dent… trust me on this one.” As the crowd cheered, the Pres­i­dent leaned into the con­clu­sion of one of his last stump speech­es while in office. “The most impor­tant office in the democ­ra­cy is that of cit­i­zen,” he stat­ed. “The most pow­er­ful word in our democ­ra­cy is ‘we.’ We shall over­come. Yes we can. I nev­er said, ‘Yes I can,’ I said ‘Yes we can.’”

Chan­nel­ing the spir­it of 2008, the Pres­i­dent con­clud­ed his final cam­paign speech by ask­ing the crowd to “do what you did for me, for Hillary. Fin­ish what we started.”

President Obama waves to the crowd in Ann Arbor
Pres­i­dent Oba­ma waves to the crowd in Ann Arbor (Pho­to: Matt Villeneuve/NPI)

By the time the pres­i­dent left the stage, the music returned, and the cheer­ing reached its fever pitch, the sun was high in the sky.

At half past noon, it was by then quite hot. Not only had the fog been lift­ed Ann Arbor, but the star pow­er of both the Pres­i­dent and the sun itself had Ann Arbor, if not Michi­gan, fired up and ready to go.

The Michi­gan polls close at 8 PM East­ern Time tomorrow.

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