Area residents starstruck by Sen. Barack Obama

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115999688612512.jpg’, ‘Photo by Jonathan Hicks’, ‘U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) speaks at the Rock Valley College gymnasium Saturday, Sept. 30.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115999695712512.jpg’, ‘Photo by Jonathan Hicks’, ‘Members of the media and people seeking autographs mob around U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) following his Sept. 30 town hall meeting.’);

Although Sept. 30 town hall meeting was to be about Rockford, audience questions focused on national topics

Nearly 1,000 people were on hand at the Rock Valley College gymnasium Saturday, Sept. 30, to take part in a “Town Hall Meeting” with U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois). The 57th such meeting since Obama took office in 2004, the first-term Democrat’s visit was largely inspired by the Labor Day flooding that continues to impact many residents.

Obama began the morning by introducing and thanking the elected officials in attendance, which included State Rep. Chuck Jefferson and State Sen. Dave Syverson. He went on to explain the town hall-style meeting format, encouraging honest questions and promising honest answers. He was quick to point out that none of the audience questions was scripted, and put no restrictions on subject matter. However, he did make one lighthearted request: “If you want to give a speech, run for office.”

As the hour-long meeting progressed, Obama was detailed in his answers, which made for frequent ovations but did not allow for frequent questions. All told, only a half dozen of the standing room-only crowd were allowed to pose their queries.

However, their questions were not without value. The varied topics included Medicare, tax cuts and the elimination of the Estate Tax, Congressional Partisanship, welfare reform and the war in Iraq. This line of questioning gave the impression that Rockford residents have everything but Rockford on their minds. No one asked about plans to restore the areas affected by Labor Day flooding, and the only mention Obama made during the meeting was unsolicited: “The Alpine Dam has got to get repaired,” he pointed out.

As a result, a meeting designed to be about the town turned into little more than a campaign stop. Still, Obama lived up to his gleaming reputation. He was consistently clear in his delivery, offering several solutions to problems and pointing out the positive and negative impacts of each. Not unlike a favorite high school teacher, Obama offered options, giving a feeling of choice and empowerment. He articulately educated his audience on current events and kept their attention with his bright smile and the occasional comical one-liner.

While taking on the role of a political science professor of sorts, Obama certainly took the opportunity to further his current role as the Democratic Party’s crème de la crème. Though at present he claims to have no presidential aspirations, the junior senator certainly did nothing to discourage those who hope he soon will. The diverse crowd seemed almost joyous at the sight of him, coming to their feet as he entered and exited, and cheering vigorously as he bashed George W. Bush’s administration’s handling of the war in Iraq. “The President’s policies have failed in Iraq,” Obama said. Though he pointed out that total troop withdrawal would be irresponsible, he also offered that “Phased withdrawal should begin this year.”

As Obama left the stage to a rousing standing ovation, he was almost immediately mobbed by audience members seeking autographs and photos. Following the conclusion of the meeting, it would take him more than an hour to exit the building. Much of that time was spent shaking hands and giving hugs to adoring constituents. The rest was spent answering questions for local media. Only then was the senator able to discuss the hometown issue of job loss in the manufacturing sector. Obama’s solution required a combination of education and competition, with the idea being that one would breed the other. It will require “better products and a work force that is educated,” he said, adding that “there’s no reason Rockford can’t do that.” He also pointed out that a Metro rail line between Rockford and Chicago would be beneficial, but suggested no specifics about how to bring that about.

By the time the morning ended, there were few new answers to the problems surrounding the Forest City. Still, audience members seemed to be content to have a brush with greatness with a man they believe would make a great United States president. If voters across the country respond to him with the same fervor that this Rockford group did, that distinction may not be as far off as Obama claims it to be.

From the Oct. 4-10, 2006, issue

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