Coming Face To Face With The President

Barack Obama i i

President Obama greets residents after a discussion in the backyard of the Clubb family home in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 29. Charles Dharapak/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Dharapak/AP
Barack Obama

President Obama greets residents after a discussion in the backyard of the Clubb family home in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 29.

Charles Dharapak/AP

President Obama hosts a big campaign rally Friday in Nevada, home of embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He's also campaigning on the West Coast. In between rallies, Obama hosted another "backyard conversation" in Seattle on Thursday. This one focused on how his economic policies affect mothers, wives and female business owners.

"Things like equal pay for equal work aren't just women's issues," he said.  "Those are middle-class family issues, because how well women do will help determine how well our families are doing as a whole."

The White House says the president enjoys these backyard sessions as a chance to talk directly with people.

So what's it like to come face to face with the president?

The Rev. Michael Amadeo knows. He's the pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Des Moines, Iowa, and one of several dozen people who gathered for a backyard session there a few weeks ago.

"I really did not have my hand raised until he said this is going to be the last question," Amadeo said. "And then I was like, OK, we'll see what happens."

This American Life

You can hear more about the president's backyard conversations on next week's episode of This American Life.

"I'm going to have to call on the guy with the collar," Obama said.

Amadeo asked about a 55-year-old father of two in his congregation who has been out of work for more than a year.

"What will your economic policies do for him within the next year to be able to secure a job and have that American dream again?"

Obama gave a long answer. He talked about green jobs and worker retraining and the many letters he gets from parents who are out of work. It took about eight minutes in all. Afterward, some reporters were shaking our heads, saying the president needs to come up with a snappier response. But Amadeo told me he wasn't really expecting an easy answer. Maybe there isn't one.

"It is real difficult for people who are unemployed to be patient," he said.  "And rightly so. I've got to put food on the table. I've got electric bills to pay. I've got a mortgage to pay.

"We in America like things instantaneously. It's tough for us to be patient in allowing the economy to heal."

I heard something similar from a man in New Mexico.

"As Americans, we need to be realistic," Andy Cavalier said. "It took years for this to happen. You can't expect something to change overnight."

Cavalier's father is a disabled Marine veteran. His stepmother, Etta Cavalier, is a longtime educator. They were chosen by the White House advance team to host another backyard conversation — this one at their ranch on the outskirts of Albuquerque.

"They wanted my husband and I to invite our neighbors," Etta Cavalier said. "They're Republican. They're Democrats. They're all types. There was no screening that took place."

Neighbors brought their own lawn chairs, and Obama rested his microphone on a tree stump. Some of the questions were tough, ranging from education to mortgages to the president's own faith. After about an hour, Obama called on Andy Cavalier, who grew emotional describing his father's struggles to get adequate care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"You don't have to apologize for being emotional about your dad," the president said. "I get emotional."

Andy Cavalier i i

Talking about his father, a wounded veteran, Andy Cavalier is overcome with emotion while asking President Obama a question during a backyard discussion in Albuquerque, N.M., on Sept. 28. Charles Dharapak/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Dharapak/AP
Andy Cavalier

Talking about his father, a wounded veteran, Andy Cavalier is overcome with emotion while asking President Obama a question during a backyard discussion in Albuquerque, N.M., on Sept. 28.

Charles Dharapak/AP

Andy Cavalier was impressed.

"I was nervous and almost embarrassed I was getting that emotional," he said. "He saw that. He came up and gave me a hug, which was probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I got a hug from the president."

The Cavaliers were already fans of Obama, but the visit won over at least one of their neighbors.

"At the end of the event, he came up to my husband and says, 'I like what I heard. I've always voted Republican, but now I'm going to vote Democrat,' " Etta Cavalier said.

But persuasive as the president can be in person, these backyard conversations don't seem to be shaping the broader political debate. That's frustrating to some of Obama's supporters.

"There are so many relevant topics that all of us — conservative and progressive or liberal — could be talking about and solving, but we're not," said Walt Rowen, a business owner in Pennsylvania.

He met up with the president not in a backyard but at a town hall meeting sponsored by CNBC. The questions there were carefully screened. Rowen had to send his in ahead of time, and he was quizzed by a TV producer as he made his way to Washington, D.C.

The network wasn't sure how many people would get to ask questions, but Rowen was high on the list, at No. 3.

"So it was at that moment, halfway to Washington, that I had an uh-oh moment: 'This is really going to happen. I'm actually going to be there asking President Obama a question.' That was a pretty heavy moment," he said.

When the town hall began, Rowen was sitting in the front row. When his turn at the microphone came, he told the president that successful businesses have to keep investing. It sounded like Rowen was working his way up to ask for a tax cut. But that's when he surprised me.

"I believe you're investing in this country as small businesses invest. And yet for some reason, the public just doesn't get it," Rowen said. "I need you to help us understand how you can regain the political center, because you're losing the war of sound bites. You're losing the media cycles."

As it turned out, Rowen himself would lose this media cycle. The sound bite most people remember from the CNBC event was the woman who asked the first question, Velma Hart.

"I'm a wife. I'm an American veteran. I'm one of your middle-class Americans. And quite frankly, I'm exhausted," she said, in a line that quickly went viral.

Rowen happened to be sitting next to Hart before the broadcast, and they talked about her disappointment that Obama hasn't lived up to sky-high expectations. Rowen counseled patience, sounding very much like the owner of a family business that's now celebrating its 100th year.

"Like businesses, many, many times it's a long-term process. You can't expect immediate results," he said. "You've got to look down the road and say, 'These are the policies that I need to implement now that will get me where I want to go.'

"And that's very difficult to get across in our society today. Everybody is like Velma Hart. She wants an immediate answer. She wants instant gratification. And it's not possible."

Rowen's words reminded me of Cavalier's and Amadeo's. But their philosophy isn't one that's getting a lot of airtime these days. That has left Rowen asking the question one hears from across the political spectrum: left, right and especially center.

"Why aren't people like me that have opinions like mine being asked or talked to?" he asked.

Across the country, there's no shortage of shouting this election season.  But beyond the backyard, real conversations about politics are hard to come by.

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