The 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, spoke before an estimated 37,500 people at a political rally in front of Doheny Memorial Library on the University Park campus on Oct. 22.
This was the fifth in a series of “Moving America Forward” rallies intended to get out the Democratic vote prior to the November midterm elections. A sixth in Las Vegas was scheduled just hours later.
The event was organized by the Democratic National Committee after an invitation from the USC Political Student Assembly, a coalition of 25 campus political groups.
USC student volunteers were heavily involved in the event, from USC Annenberg students who coordinated live streaming video of the rally, to the USC Helenes and others who helped direct the crowd. For a story on the sleep-deprived experiences of one energetic USC volunteer, senior Micah Scheindlin, visit http://uscnews.usc.edu/politics_society/a_student_volunteers_epic_day.html
The president spoke at just after 2 p.m., following two hours of entertainment and speeches, including the multicultural Los Angeles band Ozomatli, playing a mashup of musical styles. Comedian and actor Jamie Foxx served as an emcee, along with John Perez, speaker of the California State Assembly. Actor-activist Kal Penn was another celebrity who appealed to the largely youthful crowd.
Obama, appearing without a jacket and wearing his trademark white shirt, rolled up his shirtsleeves, spoke without notes and rarely glanced at the Teleprompter. “This is a Trojan kind of welcome right here. Fight on!” he began. He barely had begun his speech when a voice called out, “We love you!” and he stopped, grinned and said, “I love you back!”
Obama’s speech was starkly partisan, with pointed criticism of Republicans, saying that “their whole campaign strategy is amnesia. And so you need to remember that this election is a choice between the policies that got us into this mess and the policies that led us out of this mess.”
He repeated his oft-given metaphor of Republicans driving a car into a ditch and then asking for the keys back. He expanded the metaphor for several minutes, saying Republicans now were standing at the top of the ditch, kicking dirt down on the Democrats trying to push the car out and complaining that they weren’t pushing hard enough.
Obama spoke for a half hour, ending his speech with a warning about the dangers of phony political front groups spending millions of dollars without disclosing donors. These groups often have innocuous names such as “Mothers for Motherhood,” he said, adding that he just made up that name.
The trend “is a threat not only to Democrats, it’s a threat to our democracy,” he said.
When Obama finished speaking, as “Only in America” by Brooks and Dunn played, he climbed down from the speaker’s stand and spent another 10 minutes shaking hands with those gathered at the front of Alumni Park and the students on the risers behind him.
Barbara Solish, a senior political science major from La Canada who works for the undergraduate student government, was one of the students who shook his hand.
“I thanked him and he winked at me,” she said. “It was very meaningful.”
Solish said she thought his speech was eloquent and effectively directed to the audience. “And the car metaphor was fantastic,” she added.
“This was one of the best opportunities our school has had as a platform to show us on the level of the top universities in the nation, and we’re very grateful that Obama chose to come here,” Solish said.
The lineup of speakers included a mix of state and national Democratic candidates, including U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, attorney general Jerry Brown, who is running for governor, and Kamala Harris, who is vying for California attorney general. U.S. Secretary of Labor and USC alum Hilda Solis spoke, as did Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was there with most of the Los Angeles City Council.
Students from the USC Political Student Assembly stood on risers behind Obama, along with the USC Song girls and the USC Trojan Marching Band, which played two numbers.
The preliminary speeches were short – most just a few minutes. Brown invoked quotes from both Mahatma Gandhi and Spiro Agnew. Quoting the latter, he told the crowd not to listen to “the nattering nabobs of negativism,” but to seek “the positive force of change for everybody.” He received loud applause when he talked about green energy initiatives, saying: “We don’t need Saudi Arabian oil or Texas oil. We’ve got California sun!”
A fundraising lunch for Boxer was held before the rally in the ballroom of the Ronald Tutor Campus Center. Obama also had a private meeting with newly installed USC President C. L. Max Nikias. No media coverage was allowed at those events.
Those eager to see the president started lining up on the north side of the campus in the rain at 6 a.m. (The rain quit about three hours later, and when the president spoke, he enjoyed blue skies, sun and a light breeze.) The security checkpoint on Trousdale Parkway began letting people into Alumni Park at 10 a.m.
Despite the overflow crowd, other than the long wait to get through the security, there were few other glitches. Paramedics reported only a few medical calls for minor problems.
The rally drew a large crowd of USC students, nonstudents and Angelenos alike who braved the morning rush hour from all parts of the city for a chance to hear the president speak. For a report — and short video — on the day prepared by three fifth-graders who attended, go to http://uscnews.usc.edu/university/obamas_visit_through_fifth-grade_eyes.html
Several thousand people were lined up behind metal barricades on the USC campus. Among them were Chris Mclemore and Erin Tanguay, teachers at Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks, who brought 33 eighth graders to USC to show them the meaning of civic engagement.
Just down the way, Cassandrai Slay and her son Cliff stand patiently, waiting for the gates to open. They took the 5:30 a.m. train from Camarillo to make the long trek to USC.
“As a regular person, I feel it’s my duty to be here, to show the president that I support him and support what he’s doing for the country,” Cassandrai said. “I spend a lot of time in my car and all I hear is negativity about the president. I just think if more people take time to show their support rather than criticize him, he can do so much more for the country and for all of us.”
The massive line, which at one point extended two miles from Trousdale Parkway to the corner of 36th Place and Vermont Avenue, was surprisingly calm and organized.
Trisha Mitra, a freshman studying business administration at the USC Marshall School of Business, was at the head of the line. She, along with her brother Josh and friend Cyrus Farzaneh, arrived at 4 a.m.
“We pretty much took the liberty of forming the line,” said 22-year-old Josh. He took the day off of work in Irvine to drive in for the rally.
“When we got here, the campus wasn’t even open yet,” said Trisha, who was unable to mask her excitement amid the growing crowd. “We knew there was no overnight camping, but we wanted to make sure we got in. This is my first rally, so I’m stoked. I’m definitely tired, but it’s worth it.”
In front of the USC School of Cinematic Arts building, three students decked out in USC gear sat quietly on the curb as they took a much-needed break from the line.
Nancy Fann, a freshman studying chemical engineering, was an obvious supporter. “I actually campaigned for Obama two years ago, but never got a chance to meet him,” she said. “I hope I get to see him today.”
“I don’t support Obama – I’m a Republican – but I still wanted to see him,” said Amy Rasplicka, a mechanical engineering student at USC. “I consider this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Michael Powell, also a mechanical engineering student, added: “Regardless of political affiliation, it’s the president of the United States. It’s a fairly exciting thing that doesn’t happen too often. I just hope I’ll be able to see the president, even if it’s far away and he’s on stage. Here’s to hoping!”
Doheny Memorial Library, a four-story Italian Romanesque building opened in 1932, has been the site of speeches delivered by sitting President Gerald R. Ford and by presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.
Obama spoke at the site in October 2006 as a U.S. senator at another student-organized event prior to that year’s midterm elections. At that event, when Obama had not yet declared for office, the crowd was significantly smaller.
Shirley Shin contributed to this report.