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Obama lands in South Bend, drives to Elkhart

Kaitlynn Riely | Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The flight was not listed on the “arrivals” screen in the South Bend Regional Airport, but many people stood in and outside the terminal Monday morning in expectation of the appearance of Air Force One.

Several dozen onlookers gathered in front of a window on the second floor of the airport concourse in the hour before the plane arrived.

Lisa Bruni, 47, of Niles, Mich., was one of them. She was ready with her camera to capture the plane’s landing.

“It’s an historic event, and I wanted to do it,” she said. “I want something to show my grandkids.”

Her husband, who works at Saint Mary’s, was planning on listening for the plane’s passage overhead while he was at work.

The distinctive plane, with the words “United States of America” emblazoned on its side, landed at 11:11 a.m.

Air Force One taxied around the runway before coming to a stop beside a set of stairs several hundred yards away from the terminal.

President Barack Obama exited the plane and descended the stairs, pausing briefly to wave to the members of the media gathered at the stair’s base.

Kathy Liggett, 56, of Mishawaka, Ind., stood next to the train tracks outside the station with a sign that read “Hope” on one side and “President Obama, you give Indiana hope,” on the other. Indiana wasn’t spelled out, but instead was represented by a drawing of the state, colored in with blue marker. Liggett said it was to show that Indiana, which had been a reliably red, or Republican-leaning, state for the past several decades, turned blue in November in support for Obama.

“I wanted to make sure people were here to welcome Obama and show our appreciation for his return to Indiana,” Liggett said.

Liggett, who has a son who is an Iraq war veteran, said she spoke to Obama about mental health screenings for all veterans when he was campaigning at the 4-H Fairgrounds in St. Joseph County.

Obama traveled to Indiana Monday to make a pitch for his approximately $838 billion economic stimulus plan, which is currently awaiting a final vote by the U.S. Senate. Obama chose the nearby town of Elkhart, Ind. as the site to make the case for the passage of the bill because the area has been especially hard hit by the economic recession.

Over the course of an hour, Obama delivered remarks and then answered questions to people gathered in Elkhart’s Concord High School gymnasium.

“It’s good to be back in Indiana,” Obama said, to loud applause. “The last event we had of the campaign was in Indiana, and the first time that I’m traveling outside of the White House to talk about the economy is back in Indiana.”

Elkhart and the surrounding area has been hit hard by the economic crisis, Obama said, with the unemployment rate at 15 percent, compared to 4.7 percent last year.

Obama said he still remembered the stories of people he met from Northern Indiana from when he campaigned in Elkhart six months ago.

“I promised you back then that if elected, I would do everything I could to help this community recover,” he said. “And that’s why I’ve come back to today, because I intend to keep my promise.”

In his remarks, Obama described the bill before Congress and how it would help the economy recover. The proposal would create or save three to four million jobs over two years, Obama said, and will also provide tax relief for 95 percent of American workers.

In Indiana, he said, the plan will create or save 80,000 jobs for the next two years. Obama said the workers in these jobs would rebuild and repair roads like U.S. 31, which passes by Notre Dame.

Obama said the plan also includes investment in clean alternative sources of energy, tax relief for small businesses, student tax credits and expanded unemployment benefits.

Delaying passage of the bill will bring “deepening disaster,” Obama said, as he urged Congress to pass the bill with alacrity.

“Broadly speaking, it has the right priorities to create jobs that will jumpstart our economy and transform this economy for the 21st century,” he said.

Obama took questions on the recovery plan from the audience for more than 30 minutes, addressing topics such as how the plan would help Hoosiers specifically, how schools would be improved, how the bill would encourage “green” jobs and whether he would have a beer with conservative talk show host Sean Hannity. As Obama took questions, a woman wearing a “Notre Dame football” sweatshirt sat in the screenshot behind him.

Air Force One flew over Notre Dame on its way back to Washington, D.C. at 2:45 p.m. Monday, turning sharply south as it passed east over DeBartolo Quad.

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Obama lands in South Bend, drives to Elkhart

Jenn Metz | Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Professors at Notre Dame have probably heard a wide range of excuses for why their students did not show up for class.

Driving in a presidential motorcade most likely isn’t one of them, but for eight Notre Dame students it’s an excuse they can use in class tomorrow.

Spencer Howard, the president of the Notre Dame College Democrats, used a few words over and over again to describe Monday’s experience, most notably: “amazing” and “exciting.”

“It was a very proud moment for me,” he said.

The students who volunteered in the motorcade were able to spend a few minutes with President Barack Obama after his hour-long town hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind., to discuss the stimulus package. They waited by their cars while he spoke.

Taking a picture with the president was “the highlight of the day,” Howard said. The students took a group picture with Obama, but Howard, who volunteered for the president’s “Get Out the Vote” campaign in the fall, was lucky enough to get an individual photo with the president.

“These students did a lot for the campaign,” he said. “It was a fun opportunity for the people who worked really hard last fall.”

The commander-in-chief joked around with the kids from Notre Dame – “he’s a very friendly guy, a really genuine person,” Howard said.

“He came up to the Notre Dame students and joked about one of our new recruits from the football team who went to his high school,” Howard said, pausing for a moment.

“He’s a good guy,” he said.

White House events staff members contacted Howard late Friday afternoon asking him to put together a small group of volunteers to drive in the motorcade. All volunteers went through a Secret Service background check, “and everybody passed,” Howard said.

The drivers – Howard included – dressed in “standard business attire” and drove large 15-passenger vans. Though his experience driving a vehicle of that size was limited, Howard had no problem maneuvering down the blocked-off streets on the route from South Bend Regional Airport to Concord High School in Elkhart.

“It was pretty easy to stay in line and keep up,” he said with a laugh.

Howard drove one of the support cars, which followed behind Secret Service and protection vehicles. Among his passengers: David Axelrod, senior adviser to the president; Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president; and Robert Gibbs, White House Press Secretary.

It was a thrill, he said, to drive in car with and put faces to the names he sees so frequently in print.

“They’ve done some big things in politics and for the government, it’s cool to be even their chauffeur, especially for someone like me who is constantly reading about politics,” Howard said. “Getting the chance to see the people you read about is pretty cool.”

Axelrod, whose name is on many of the e-mails sent by the Obama campaign, and now, administration, is working to “keep people motivated and involved in the system,” Howard said.

“He can’t just forget about keeping in touch with the people after the election.”

The Obama staff in Howard’s car didn’t talk to their driver much – they were busy e-mailing and on the phone.

“It was kind of funny, and very typical of the people you imagine in the government, constantly communicating,” he said.

When Howard joined the College Democrats his sophomore year after transferring to the University, he never thought he would end up driving in the president’s motorcade.

“I joined because its something I believe in, I’m doing it to build friendships and work on something that I’m passionate about,” he said. “Not many people get a change to meet the president – it’s just gravy at this point.”

Though his day began at 7:30 a.m. when he left his house for the airport and he didn’t return home until after 4:00 p.m., Howard said every minute of his experience was worth it.

“It was a privilege,” he said.

One of the best moments of the day: seeing Obama disembarking Air Force One.

“We’ve all seen it on T.V.,” he said, “but you’re actually there to see him walk off the plane. Everybody our age can remember seeing President Clinton or President Bush walk out of the plane, but actually seeing Obama is a pretty amazing thing.”

Senior Rafael Diaz, another member of the College Democrats who volunteered as a driver, said even though he had seen Obama before at a rally, Monday’s experience was a little different.

“Then he was walking by and people were reaching out and trying to clutch at his hand,” he said. “This time … I was star struck, we took the picture, I got the handshake.”

When Howard called his fellow Obama campaign volunteer Friday night and asked him “randomly” what he was doing Monday morning, Diaz at first didn’t’ realize what he was saying “yes” to doing.

“I didn’t know we would be part of the president’s motorcade,” he said.

“The people along the side of the road were waving, and there were crowds of people when we entered the town,” Diaz said. “It was really impressive. We passed schools, and you could see the faces of the kids in the windows, who had probably been waiting a long time to glimpse the limo … it was really special.”

The people of Elkhart are “really hurting right now,” Howard said, “and [Obama] wanted to reach out to them.”

The town hall meeting format of Monday’s event was like “home turf” for the president, who’s “not exactly a Washington insider,” Howard said.

“He’s happy to be out and across the United States and actually having a change to speak with the people,” he said. “He’s very comfortable explaining his ideas … he’s willing to do it, and he’s happy to do it.”

Being asked to assist in the event – the president’s farthest trip from Washington, D.C. since taking office in January – isn’t something you say “no” to, Howard said.

Howard used an example from the television series “The West Wing” to illustrate his point. In the show’s second season, the character Ainsley Haynes, a conservative spokesperson, accepts a position in the White House Counsel’s Office for the Bartlet administration after being told by the Chief of Staff, quite plainly, she serves at the pleasure of the president.

Though perhaps not on the same scale, the sentiment, for Howard, is the same.

“When you have the opportunity to serve the president, you just say yes,” he said. “Class comes next on the priority list.”

As for his professors, Howard said “hopefully they won’t hold it against me.”