Politically Thinking: Obama visit sends wrong message

The White House and the Obama re-election campaign should reconsider their plans for the president’s trip to Vermont at the end of March. Obama will be taking a quick trip to Burlington and to Portland, Maine, on March 30 solely for the purpose of fundraising. All the events in Burlington will be at the Sheraton.
There will be a rally in a ballroom, with ticket prices ranging from $100, to stand in the main part of the hall, to $500, to stand in the front. The rally will be followed by a lunch with ticket prices ranging from $7,500 for an individual and $10,000 for a couple to $30,800 for preferred access to Obama, including a pre-luncheon reception and a photograph. Since the maximum contribution allowed by law to the president’s re-election campaign is $5,000, those who attend the lunch will also be contributing to other Democratic committees at both the state and national levels.
I certainly understand the president’s emphasis on fundraising at this point in the campaign. His eventual Republican opponent, and SuperPACs helping that candidate, will spend hundreds of millions, maybe even a billion, dollars to make sure that Obama is not elected to a second term. Accumulating a huge war chest at this time is a top priority for the Obama campaign.
Even so, two changes should be made to the schedule for the president’s Vermont visit. First, Obama should add a presidential event to the fundraiser. For example, he could visit a town such as Rochester that was devastated by Tropical Storm Irene, to pay tribute to the resilience of Vermonters after the storm. Or, if he wants to stay closer to Burlington, he could visit Vermont National Guard Headquarters at Camp Johnson, to honor Vermonters’ service in the war in Afghanistan. On a per capita basis, more Vermonters served in Afghanistan than soldiers from any other state. Non-political events such as these would attract better news coverage than just a rally and a lunch with a well-heeled crowd.
Second, the event in the Sheraton ballroom should be replaced with a large rally with a lower ticket price. While the Vermont Democratic base of upper-middle-class professionals, executives in green businesses, and wealthy retirees certainly includes many people who would not think twice about paying at least $100 to see the president, there are many more Obama supporters in Vermont who would attend an event with him if the cost were less.
When Sen. Joe Biden was the Democratic candidate for vice-president in the fall of 2008, he came to Burlington for a rally at Patrick Gym on the UVM campus. I am sure that if Obama were to do a similar event, at a ticket price of $20, he would attract at least the 3,500 or so people needed to fill Patrick Gym. A rally that would draw a large crowd would generate more enthusiasm for the president’s re-election among the Vermont Democratic grass roots than a smaller event in the Sheraton ballroom.
A president whose re-election campaign will place heavy emphasis on the squeeze on the middle class and the rise in income inequality in the United States needs to be careful that his trip to Vermont, the first visit to the state by a sitting president since 1995, involves more than speeches to affluent donors. The current plans for the March 30 trip have the president spending most of his time with Vermont’s equivalent of the “one percent.” Barack Obama can do better than this.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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