Charlotte, N.C., Wed., April 15: In a battleground state he won in 2008 and lost in 2012—both by close margins—President Barack Obama spoke on Wednesday, Tax Day, about economic policy, particularly how it affects working families and working women. By listing his administration’s initiatives—the successful ones and those he said were obstructed by Republicans—Obama was mindful of both his legacy and the Democratic Party’s traditional appeal to female voters.
The message, in the town hall format, was this: Women’s issues are family issues are American issues. The president occasionally took the microphone, “Phil Donahue-style,” he joked to audience members who had a question. But the mood was serious when women stood to ask questions about affordable child care, teacher salaries, health care and what to say to hardworking daughters in an unfair world. It was a bipartisan crowd, organizers said, but most seemed receptive to the president’s message. Obama got personal, illustrating policy points with anecdotes about his grandmother, wife and daughters in this casual, small town hall setting with invited guests, many of them community advocates and bloggers.
Then there was the presence of the person not in the room or the conversation. Hillary Clinton, almost certain to be at the top of the ticket in 2016, started her own campaign this week, talking about the same issues of equal pay and middle-class relief that Obama emphasized. In conversations before and after the president’s event, though many in the crowd were on board with what they’ve heard from her so far, it was clear that if Clinton expects the level of support the president received from African-American women in North Carolina, she has work to do.
BlogHer and SheKnows Media hosted on Wednesday, with Lisa Stone of SheKnows Media moderating and sharing questions that she had received before the event as the president also called on several in the diverse crowd. In a post on BlogHer, Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett had that day listed “10 Reasons You Can't Afford to Stay Out of the Working Families Policy Discussion,” including this, at No. 7: “On average for every $1 men earn, women still make just 78 cents. That means the average women will have lost $420,000 over lifetime because of the earnings gap.”
President Obama continued the theme in his visit to ImaginOn, an educational library and theater in Charlotte. “When women succeed, the whole country succeeds,” he said, and chided Republicans for blocking the Paycheck Fairness Act. (Critics, who say that unequal pay is already illegal, insist that the act would only increase lawsuits.)
The president said that his plans would cut taxes for about 44 million working- and middle-class families instead of benefiting millionaires and billionaires who don’t need it. “America deserves a raise,” he said.
Obama was relaxed, seemingly resigned to the scant amount of compromise he can count on from Republicans. He even sent some shade toward actions by the state’s conservative Legislature. When a blogger said that she earned more than her teacher husband, the president said, "North Carolina used to be a state in which promise of education was understood at the state level.” The implication was—not anymore.
Some were pleased that he was telling the story of his administration, the story of an improving economy, job training and community college relief. “His initiatives have been successful,” said Marcia Lampert, board member of Crisis Assistance Ministry. “If Congress doesn’t want to pass these programs, they are fooling themselves.”
But though it was the president’s day, Hillary Clinton was also on the minds of the voters she will need to put in her column if she is to occupy the White House. African-American women in the state overwhelmingly supported Obama.
Jonette “Jo” Harper, who got to ask the president a question, was one of them. The co-founder of the nonprofit Sarcoidosis of North Carolina—a support group for those, like her, with chronic illnesses—said she felt that the president understood how many of those with “invisible” illnesses “want to get that job and do the best they can, but employers will have to work with us.” She said she felt “empowered” after her exchange with Obama.
The divorced mother of two daughters said that Clinton “is going to have to reach a little deeper.” Harper said she realizes that some things the Clinton campaign said of then-opponent Obama in the heat of the 2008 campaign were just politics, but people don’t forget, she said.
Pat Porter of Charlotte, who owns a child care center, was receptive to the president’s call for early-childhood-education efforts, necessary to make a difference and “break the cycle”; it’s something she sees in the families she works with. Porter said, “I’ve always been a Hillary fan,” and in 2008, she said, she got into a few arguments with her husband, an Obama supporter. But she said that Clinton cannot take anyone’s support for granted: “She has to come out into the small cities and every community; she has to reach out.”
Was it policy or politics that brought President Obama back to the city where, in 2012, he accepted his party’s nomination for the second time? Both, of course. And it’s sure to see some return visits by a president setting his legacy, as well as by the woman who would be his successor—that is, if Democrats want this swing state to once again swing their way.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.