Reporter's Notebook: All Eyes on the President


President Barack Obama giving a shout-out to Boise Mayor Dave Bieter - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • President Barack Obama giving a shout-out to Boise Mayor Dave Bieter
Tickets to see President Barack Obama speak at the Caven-Williams Sports Complex at Boise State University January 21 were printed on handsome card stock, and attendees clutched them in gloved hands as they walked past the line and demonstrators, muttering about whether, with a line this long, there was any chance they'd be allowed inside the complex. On their way, they walked past a security checkpoint where unauthorized belongings like coffee cups and plastic bags had begun to form a small butte of trash. 

"No one thought to put a damn trash can out there?" wondered Twitter user Alex Hecht when he saw a picture of it on the social media platform.

One of the President's political detractors, Twitter user Tickle Me Larry, wrote, "If you want to shows [sic] pics of garbage why don't you just put up a pick of a liberal[?]"

Detractors like Tickle Me Larry mostly stayed at home Jan. 21, however; instead, there were hundreds of activists vying for the attention of the people in line, from those advocating Presidential action on behalf of Saeed Abedini, the Boise-based pastor who has been imprisoned in Iran since 2012; to protesters against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Others were pushing for the President to make the Boulder-White Clouds in eastern Idaho a national monument.

A growing pile of unauthorized items at a security checkpoint - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • A growing pile of unauthorized items at a security checkpoint
Julie Joefnagels was one of two people holding up a sign calling on the President to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline. She said she'd long been passionate about environmental issues, but became particularly interested in the pipeline through her book club.

"I'm trying to protect Idaho and the country's environment any way I can," she said.

Deborah Sturgeon held up a sign that read "#SaveSaeed" in front of Albertsons (nee Bronco) Stadium. Her sign and shirt were a shade of green you could see from space. 

"We're making a statement about a person who should have been brought home a long time ago," she said. 

The people waiting in the line itself were a mix of parents with small children, and Boise State students, and their hopes for what the President would say were equally mixed. Boise State student Henry Murphy was looking forward to Obama touching on his career prospects in America's changing economy.

"I hope he talks about jobs after we graduate," he said. 

Larry Kish, who'd come with his daughter and her infant child, told Boise Weekly, "It'd be interesting to see if he has anything to say about the Boulder-White Cloud Monument."

Security for the public consisted of a basic search of bags, pat-downs and metal detectors. The line moved quickly despite the process of being admitted to the complex being billed as "airport security" in pre-event materials. In all, Idaho State Police and other law enforcement personnel admitted more than 6,000 people into the complex.

  • Harrison Berry
Inside, the cavernous space was divided into sections for VIP guests like the Boise State Bronco Marching Band and local politicians, the public, and the media. The wait was long, and the playlist blaring over loudspeakers was limited. Some of the volunteers who'd been charged with erecting barricades and various stages had been there since the early morning, and they bustled about with white plastic chairs, pouring water for guests from orange jugs and helping people in the VIP section to their seats. 

Television media had also been in the complex since the early morning running their cameras and sound equipment through security checks. They erected equipment on tall platform, and huge power cables wound haphazardly across the floor to TV news vans in the parking lot. Photojournalists with improbably long telephoto lenses patrolled the barricades between the media and attendees searching for shots of the audience, and print journalists plugged their laptops into power strips taped to folding card tables arranged in rows near the back of the complex. 

From the inside, the crowd looked very different from the line: What had been an even but eclectic mess of parents, children, students and the elderly now seemed to be mostly students armed with cell phones, with which they snapped selfies and pictures of the podium where the President would speak. There were a few middle-aged people in the audience who'd come to rally for Obama. They included sisters Kathy Clifford, Pat Casey and Tawnia Santos, who bore little physical resemblance except for their clear, blue eyes.

"We're super supporters of the President," Clifford said. 

The VIP section was to the left of the main stage and filled slowly from an entrance behind the stage behind a heavy blue curtain. Through that portal came Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, who'd just disembarked from Air Force One; astronaut and educator Barbara Morgan; former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus; and a handful of state legislators. The Idaho Legislature had taken a brief recess for the event, though few members of the Republican-controlled legislature were in attendance.

Rep. Mark Nye (D-Pocatello) - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Rep. Mark Nye (D-Pocatello)
"The Legislature and the people of Idaho have tremendous respect for the President," said Rep. Mark Nye (D-Pocatello).
There was standing room only in the crowd, and many began to fidget and chant over the music: It was evident that people were anxious for Obama to take the stage. During his State of the Union speech to Congress and the public the night before had taken sharp aim at income inequality and job growth—issues that were near and dear to many in attendance at Boise State. Members of the local and national media murmured about whether he'd roll out a platform he hadn't addressed during the SOTU. Boise State student Tess Gregg Worstell sang the National Anthem—"It's absolutely incredible" to be able to sing for the President, she said. Every break in the music seemed like a sign that Obama was coming.

Finally, Boise State engineering student Camille Eddy took the stage and welcomed President Obama to the stage to thunderous applause and cheers from the audience. 

He wore a white shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbow and a blue tie, and his hair was salt and pepper. His limbs are leaner and more muscular than they look like on television. Eight years of living in the White House have taken a toll on the man who took a similar stage at Millennium Park in Chicago in 2008 to tell Americans he'd be their new President, but his voice was strong and his movements were measured. He gave a shout-out to Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and talked about his tour of the Boise State campus and Hackfort—Treefort Music Fest's coding app design component—before launching into discussions of raising wages and educating students for a new economy. 

"Let's do more to restore the playing field," he told the crowd. "We want everybody to contribute to America's success."

He drew a sharp contrast between the 20th and 21st centuries: In the years following World War II, America spent billions on infrastructure and education. In the mid-20th century, a student could pay his or her way through college on earnings from a part-time job. But the cost of education has risen dramatically in the 21st century, and America's infrastructure has begun to age. Pres. Obama said that "we were on the cutting edge then—we need to be on the cutting edge now." It was largely a rehash and elaboration upon his SOTU remarks.

For more on his speech, click here.

His comments concluded, Obama toured the picket lines shaking hands and exchanging fist bumps. Photographers edged in on choice spots from which to catch him interacting with the public while TV news crews interviewed VIP guests as the public filed out the complex's doors. 

The glow of the experience began to fade in the January cold of the Albertsons Stadium parking lot. While the public went home, the President re-boarded Air Force One on his way to Lawrence, Kansas, where he'd deliver a similar speech.