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A Piece of the President

Obama’s speech draws the curious and the fervent to the University of Richmond.



It’s been a rough time for Calvin Wright.

“I worked for the post office for 26 years,” he says. “Took sick for two weeks. Came back to work, they had no work for me.”

Still, he’s a believer. Today he brought out the clothes he bought three years ago: bright red pants, an Obama hat, and a white shirt printed with the president’s face that says, “Change We Can Believe In.”

Ophelia Daniels believes, too. She stands next to Wright in the long line that snakes to the University of Richmond Robins Center, where President Barack Obama’s speech is set to take place in two and a half hours.

“People are hurting. They are out of work,” she says. “And I want to hear his plan, as to what he thinks. He has the insight on everything. I don’t. But I’m willing to follow his lead. And I know he’s going to do the right thing by the American people.” Others waiting in this line aren’t hurting. They just thought, Why not?

UR freshman Matt Dirzulaitis says he’s “not that politically active,” but figured there never would be a better opportunity to get close to the president. “You don’t have to go out of your way to see him,” he says.

Believers and curiosity seekers: That’s who’s in the crowd of more than 8,000 that have come to hear the president speak.

And VIPs, of course. There’s the affable UR President Ed Ayers, bouncing from handshake to handshake. The reserved Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao and his wife, Monica. There are state delegates Delores McQuinn and (someone says they’ve spotted) Joe Morrissey, state senators Henry Marsh and Donald McEachin, former governors Tim Kaine and L. Douglas Wilder. A few groups of protestors and promoters of various causes. And hey, there’s Preston Brown, used-car dealer, radio host and long-shot challenger for Marsh’s seat. How’d he get a special-access ticket? “I’m VIP,” he says. “Get down with P.T. Brown.”

Why is the president in Richmond? And why, specifically, the university? It wasn’t Kaine’s doing, university spokesman Brian Eckert says, nor was it a Spider insider pulling strings.

According to Eckert, the White House team showed up Sunday, toured the campus, and decided Monday that this was the place: “The president said, ‘Sure.’” It’s the first time a sitting president has appeared at the university since George H. W. Bush debated Bill Clinton and Ross Perot there in 1992.

Eckert seems just a little tired of people asking, “Why UR?” “Believe it or not, we actually have a reputation outside of Richmond,” he says.

A few people steal the show before the president comes on stage. The crowd goes wild when Richmond Police Sergeant Faith Flippo sings “The Star-Spangled Banner,” amazed at the operatic voice issuing from the woman with the gun and the sensible bun. And they love Nigel Richardson, the Open High School junior who introduces the president without seeming nervous at all. (“I was,” he later confesses.)

Then the president appears: a slender, graying man, the sleeves of his pale-blue shirt carefully rolled up. Hundreds of cell phones are held high, everyone trying to get their own little piece of the president.

“It is good to be in Richmond, Virginia,” the president says. Everyone freaks out.

He gives shout-outs to Kaine -- “former governor of Virginia and one of my greatest friends” -- Ayers and Wilder. And: “The mayor of Richmond, Dwight Jones, is in the house!” Obama says.

The president echoes what he said in Thursday night’s address to Congress. He describes his proposed American Jobs Act, its payroll tax cuts, public-works projects and jobs for teachers and veterans. He insists it’s something Democrats and Republicans can easily agree on.

The crowd isn’t a tough one. Audience members interject: “Four more years” and “Amen” and “We’ve got your back.”

Obama exhorts them to speak up and support his bill. “I want you to visit,” he says. “I want you to Facebook. Send a carrier pigeon. I want you to tell your congressperson, the time for gridlock and games is over. The time for action is now.”

The message gets through to brothers Jonathan and Justin Dyer, ages 10 and 9.

Obama was “very, very intelligent,” Justin says while he waits with his grandfather in the line for the shuttle bus. “What he said was, some things help us with, with --” he pauses.

His older brother whispers in his ear.

“What he said,” Justin says: “Jobs.”

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