Coming Face To Face With The President The White House says President Obama enjoys backyard sessions because they give him a chance to talk directly with people. Three men who have met Obama at such events -- a Catholic priest, a veteran's son and a small-business owner -- share their experiences.
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Coming Face To Face With The President

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Coming Face To Face With The President

Coming Face To Face With The President

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. It is Friday morning.

President Obama has been holding rallies in a number of Western states that had been considered Democratic strongholds - had been considered Democratic strongholds. Between rallies, the president hosted another backyard conversation yesterday in Seattle, this one focused on how his economic policies affect mothers, wives and female business owners.

President BARACK OBAMA: Things like equal pay for equal work aren't just women's issues, those are middle class family issues, because, you know, how well women do will help determine how well our families are doing as a whole.

INSKEEP: The White House says the president enjoys these backyard sessions, it's a chance to talk directly with people.

NPR's Scott Horsley has also spent some time in those backyards, both before the president came and after he left.

Unidentified Man: The president will be here shortly. We just need everyone to take their seats, please.

SCOTT HORSLEY: There's an odd assortment of chairs in this Iowa backyard, where a few dozen of people have gathered on a chilly fall morning. They've come to hear from President Obama and for a chance to be heard themselves. I've come, along with a bunch of other reporters, to listen in.

Unidentified Man: Please turn off your cell phone ringers. If you have questions, please limit it to one question.

HORSLEY: One of the people in the background, Michael Amadeo, had spent the night before thinking of what he might ask the president, but when the opportunity came he hesitated. Father Michael is pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Des Moines. At first he thought maybe he'd leave the questioning to others.

Father MICHAEL AMADEO (Holy Trinity Church): I really did not have my hand raised until he said this is going to be the last question. And then I was like, hmm, okay, we'll see what happens.

President OBAMA: I'm going to have to call on the guy with the collar. What can I do, you know.

Father AMADEO: Mr. President, my question for you comes from a member of my congregation who is 55 years of age...

President OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

Father AMADEO: ...has a wife, two children who are freshmen in high school.

President OBAMA: Right.

Father AMADEO: He's been unemployed now for a year plus. 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?

HORSLEY: Father Michael says he could have asked that about any one of 50 families in his congregation. The important thing was to make it personal.

Father AMADEO: It's somebody that I see every Sunday and I see his kids every Sunday and his wife every Sunday and I see them at our parish activities. Why him and not somebody else? I don't know, other than I know that this is what he was struggling with.

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

Father AMADEO: It is real difficult for people who are unemployed to be patient. 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.

HORSLEY: I heard something similar from a man in New Mexico, Andy Cavalier.

Mr. ANDY CAVALIER: As Americans, we need to be realistic. You know, it took years for this to happen. You can't expect something to change overnight.

HORSLEY: Andy'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.

Ms. ETTA CAVALIER: They wanted my husband and I to invite our neighbors. They're Republican. They're Democrats. They're of all different types. There was no screening that took place.

HORSLEY: The neighbors brought their own lawn chairs, and Mr. Obama rested his microphone on a tree stump. The questions weren't necessarily those that I would have asked, but they weren't softballs, ranging from education to mortgages to the president's own faith. After about an hour, Mr. Obama called on Andy.

Mr. CAVALIER: Thank you so much, Mr. President. I've got a couple of questions for you. One really hits hard for me. I'm getting a little emotional here.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. CAVALIER: My father, being a veteran...

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. CAVALIER: ...we appreciate everything that you've done for the country, and you know, obviously the VA does a lot for my father.

(Soundbite of crying)

President OBAMA: You don't have to apologize for being emotional about your dad, who served our country as a Marine, man. That's I - you know, I get emotional.

Mr. CAVALIER: I guess in that instant I actually was nervous, and almost even embarrassed that I was getting that emotional. He saw that. He came up and gave me a hug, which was probably a once in a lifetime type thing, you know. I got a hug from the president and also a compliment, so...

HORSLEY: Was it a good hug?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAVALIER: It was a presidential hug. It was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAVALIER: It was a good hug.

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

Ms. CAVALIER: At the end of the event, he came up to my husband and he says, you know, he says, I like what I heard. I've always voted Republican but now I'm going to vote Democrat.

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

Mr. WALT ROWEN: There's so many relevant topics that all of us, conservative and progressive or liberal, could be talking about and solving, but we're not.

HORSLEY: That's Walt Rowen, the Pennsylvania business owner. He met up with the president not at a backyard but at a town hall meeting sponsored by CNBC. The questions there were carefully screened. Walt 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.

Mr. ROWEN: They told me they were talking about 15 people with questions. They think this is only going to be maybe five or six, but right now you're slotted to be number three. So it was at that moment, halfway to Washington, that I had a uh-oh moment, you know? This is really going to happen. I'm actually going to be there asking President Obama a question. That was a pretty heavy moment.

Unidentified Man: Please welcome the president of the United States.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: When the town hall began, Walt was sitting in the front row. When his turn came at the microphone, he told the president successful businesses have to keep investing. I figured he was working his way up to ask for a tax cut, but that's when Walt surprised me.

Mr. ROWEN: I believe you are investing in this country as small businesses invest, and yet for some reason the public just doesn't get it. I need you to help us understand how you can regain the political center, because you're losing the war of soundbites. You're losing the media cycles.

HORSLEY: As it turned out, Walt himself would lose this media cycle. The soundbite most people remember from that CNBC event was the woman who asked the first question, Velma Hart.

Ms. VELMA HART: I'm a wife, I'm an American veteran, and I'm one of your middle class Americans, and quite frankly, I'm exhausted.

HORSLEY: Walt happened to be sitting next to Velma Hart before the broadcast and they talked about her disappointment that Mr. Obama hasn't lived up to sky-high expectations. Walt told her you've got to be patient, sounding very much like the owner of a family business that's now celebrating its 100th year.

Mr. ROWEN: Like businesses, it's - many, many times it's a long-term process. You can't expect immediate results. 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. It's just everybody is, like Velma Hart, she wants instant gratification and it's not possible.

HORSLEY: Walt's words remind me of Andy's and Father Michael's. But their philosophy is not one that's getting a lot of airtime these days, and that's left Walt asking the question one hears from across the political spectrum -left, right and especially center...

Mr. ROWEN: Why aren't people like me that have opinions like mine being asked or talked to?

HORSLEY: 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.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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