By Phil Brown
Opened in October of last year, the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Baxter Arena is only a few months old, a newborn compared to other Omaha event venues; the young arena’s baptism last week was something to test the mettle of even the oldest: a visit from standing President Barack Obama.
The massive logistical challenges of a presidential visit were illustrated in large form as visitors arrived early in the afternoon to see Baxter’s ample grounds already wound about with thousands of would-be audience members. In serpentine queues, the waiting crowd shivered and shuffled around the parking lots and lawn of the arena for a chance to be prodded with electronic equipment in security, and face down a formidably armed and staffed security detail, complete with fierce-looking dogs.
The shuttles ferrying in even more visitors started to back up soon after 1 p.m., due to lack of room to unload. The afternoon sun gave those waiting in line a bit of relief, but the crowd seemed energized anyway. With bands from UNO playing, the crowd babbling excitedly with each other, the odd television interview being conducted, and several spirited protests going on, the grounds out-side
Baxter were as lively as they were chaotic in the hours leading up to the President’s arrival.
Inside the venue, the aura was one of just as much anticipation. Those seated were treated to a live video feed of Air Force One’s touch-down at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue. With a raucous chorus of boos at Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts when he appeared on the video feed, the early-bird viewers may have betrayed their true-blue political leanings. The cheers for the President when he came into view, walking down the steps from Air Force One alongside Senator Brad Ashford were just a sample of what was to come.
But the audience was destined to wait a substantial amount of time from the motorcade departure from Bellevue to the arrival at Baxter. Unbeknownst to the waiting crowd, the President had a visit to make first.
Lisa Martin, a teacher at Papillion La Vista High School, received a visit from President Obama that afternoon at her home in Papillion directly after the President landed at Offutt. Martin had written a letter to the President early last year, in which she shared her concerns about the world her young son would grow up in. The President responded, and then the White House contacted Martin again when plans finalized to come to Omaha.
Back in Baxter, the audience gave a roar of applause, as a speaker came to the stage, but the “President” announced on the loudspeaker was only Hank Bounds, President of the University of Nebraska and not the United States. After Bounds spoke, there was an-other long wait. Finally, Martin herself walked up to stage, and gave President Obama his introduction, where she detailed the letter she sent as a sleep-deprived new mother back in January. “Will my son be able to thrive on this plan-et?” She had written.
“Will he be able to experience the small things, such as winter in Nebraska, where he has snow days and sledding?” Obama had emailed back to reassure her, and in her speech, she emphasized that anyone can affect change.
“Hello, Omaha!” The President took the podium to thunderous, pro-longed applause. “Go Mavericks!” he said, setting off another ovation. In what was to set the tone for the night, Obama showed himself to be well-prepared to the venue. He complimented the venue, remarking on the “new-arena smell” to laughter, and last year’s Frozen Four run by the hockey team.
The President continued by mentioning many of the notable guests in attendance, including Hank Bounds and John Christensen from the University. He talked about his last State of the Union address, which he had given the night before and shared why he wanted to give the follow-up in Omaha.
He looked back to the campaign of 2008, where he and Joe Biden had won an electoral vote from the district Omaha represents. “And then four years later, I got whupped all across this state.” He added ruefully. “But I love Nebraska anyway.”
The majority of the body of Obama’s speech was pulled from the State of the Union address he had given the night before. The President focused on areas the nation had improved since his arrival in office, like the reduction in unemployment, health-care options provided by Affordable Care Act, and touting America’s military power.
The President shared his concerns about rising income inequality in the midst of higher employment, of smaller paychecks even with health care options and a spirit of racial and religious division at home while the military remained strong. Because America has an ex-ample to uphold, Obama claimed, “we have to reject any politics — any politics — that targets people because of their race or their religion.”
“When politicians insult Muslims, including Muslim Americans, including Muslim Americans who are in uniform, fighting on our behalf, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is bullied, that doesn’t make us safer.” Obama’s Omaha audience, who saw their own mosque vandalized this past fall applauded.
“Because of folks like all of you, I am absolutely confident that we’re going to get to where we need to go, and America will remain the greatest country on Earth.” Obama conclud-ed.
As he left the stage to uproarious applause, the President stepped down for pictures and a few quick words with those close enough to reach him, before being whisked away by his staff for good.
As a charismatic personality, and a compelling speaker, Obama remind-ed those in attendance how he won the 2008 electoral vote. Showing himself well-prepared and comfortable talking in and about Omaha, with references to Warren Buffet, the University Medical Center’s ebola work, the Omaha unemployment rate, among other things, the President established a rapport with those in attendance that won’t easily be forgotten; as President Obama prepares to leave the White House for good, Omaha, and UNO, can be proud to have witnessed the farewell tour.