BOWIE, Md. — In an effort to infuse a fresh burst of energy among youthful voters, President Barack Obama made his first return visit as Commander-in-Chief to Maryland’s oldest Historically Black University Thursday to rally support for Gov. Martin O’Malley and the state’s Democratic candidates.
In a rousing and occasionally humorous speech in which he portrayed Republican contenders as friends of big business who don’t have middle-class interests in mind, Obama cast the Nov. 2 general election as a choice between tax cuts for the rich versus investments in education.
“That is the choice in this election,” Obama told an audience of hundreds of students, alumni, faculty and supporters in the courtyard at Bowie State University. “Instead of tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, we want to make permanent the tax breaks we gave to the middle class, because you deserve a break.”
Obama and a slew of Democratic elected officials seeking to retain office also touted reforms the Obama administration has made in the realm of higher education, such as taking big banks out of the student loan system as middle men and passing the savings on to students.
And they heaped praise upon O’Malley for making Maryland’s public school the top-ranked in the nation, freezing college tuition, driving down crime and overseeing the addition of 30,000 jobs at a time when unemployment rates continue to besiege the nation.
U.S. Rep John Sarbanes (D-Towson, Md.) reminded the audience that Democrats made Pell Grants larger and changed health-care policy so that young people can remain on their parent’s health insurance until age 26.
The rally’s focus on college affordability had an impact on the BSU student body, many of whom say they are feeling the effects of the economy as they struggle to pay for higher education.
“It’s essential that college is affordable,” said Joshua McNeil, 18, a business administration major at BSU. “They definitely got our vote on that one,” McNeil said of the Obama and O’Malley administrations’ efforts to keep college costs in check. McNeil said he was undecided before the speeches of Obama and his Democratic colleagues but now planned to vote for O’Malley.
“I think it definitely got me aware of what’s going on,” McNeil said. “It was confirmation that they were passionate about what they were saying.”
The event was packed with Democratic elected officials who reminded the audience that it was important to vote even though Obama wasn’t on the ballot, lest Republican and Tea Party contenders roll back the clock on Democratic reforms.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) stressed the importance of voting for Democrats as a means to securing strong investments in education and thus the nation’s future.
“What are you gonna do?” Cummings asked the crowd.
“Vote!” the crowd said.
“That ain’t enough,” Cummings said. “What if I add a piece onto that? Vote Democratic.”
Majority Leader of the U.S. House Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) invoked the legacy of the civil rights movement and told the audience they owed it to those who fought for the right to vote to go to the polls.
Recalling the dangers that Black voters faced in going to the polls in the past, Hoyer said: “The danger exists only if we don’t vote, only if we don’t affirm President Obama’s agenda to move the nation forward.”
Obama’s speech began at roughly 3:30 and lasted a little over a half hour. It was preceded by soulful gospel renditions of “God Bless America” and the National Anthem.
The BSU marching band played old school classics by the O’Jays and Earth, Wind and Fire. At least one person collapsed because of an apparent heat stroke before the speech and at least two others collapsed, also apparently because of the heat, during the speech.
Obama used the episodes to remind the crowd of the importance of drinking plenty of water and eating before a rally like Thursday’s, “especially when you got a lot of politicians talking.”
There was only one minor disturbance, when someone, apparently inspired by U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), shouted out “You’re a liar,” when Obama started talking about how Republicans had drove the economy into a ditch and Democrats were trying to get the economy back on the road.
The crowd jeered the heckler and he apparently left voluntarily without further incident.
Continuing with his analogy on how economy is a car that Republicans drove into a ditch, Obama said his administration has successfully got the economy out and back on the road.
“It’s got some dents and needs a tune up,” Obama said. “We want to start back on that road to prosperity. But we feel this tap on our shoulder and who is it? It’s the Republicans saying, ‘We want the keys back.’ We have to say, ‘You can’t have the keys back because you don’t know hot to drive’” Obama said, drawing laughter. “We’ll give you a ride if you want, but you got to sit in the back seat because you don’t know how to drive.”
BSU history and Spanish professor James Santiago Mauer said Obama’s speech at BSU will likely eat away at the indifference that has a grip on many young African-Americans and inspire them to become more engaged citizens.
BSU Student Government Association President Kirk Pressley Jr. said Obama’s visit increased hits to the school’s website by 200 percent. Pressley also said the president’s visit prompted several elected officials to plan campus visits to talk to students, which will in turn make the students more politically aware.