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Supporters greet Obama at airport

Madeline Buckley | Sunday, May 17, 2009

      A group of South Bend community members gathered at the South Bend Regional Airport Sunday afternoon to greet President Barack Obama, who landed at about 12:40 p.m. ahead of his Commencement address at Notre Dame.

The gathering was organized by a collaborative effort of the Notre Dame College Democrats and a local grassroots organization to welcome Obama to South Bend, said Henry Vasquez, president of the Notre Dame College Democrats.

Obama delivered the University’s 164th Commencement address at the graduation ceremony Sunday.

“This is not about being an Obama supporter or a Democrat,” Vasquez said. “It’s about people supporting their president.”

The group stood at the corner of Lincoln Way West and Oak Rd. across from the Southwest end of airport with signs supporting Obama.

“We expressed the sentiment of keeping it positive,” Vasquez said. “This is a good, positive and inclusive way to contrast the negativity of the demonstrations on Angela.”

As the motorcade with Obama drove by, the group shouted: “Fired up! Ready to go! Fired up! Ready to go!” and “Yes we can!”

Vasquez, who could not attend the rally, said the students who helped organize it were not able to attend, but helped offered a “student voice” to guide the event.

He said the College Democrats asked that no rallies take place on campus, but the group wanted to reach out to all supporters – not just students and not just Democrats.

The group worked with a local grassroots organization that supports Obama, Yes We Did Michiana. The two groups decided to greet the president at the airport and then do three hours of service in the community afterwards.

Jennifer Peck, a spokesperson for the organization, said the Notre Dame students she worked with asked that any rallies be held off-campus, so they decided to hold the event at the airport.

Vasquez said the students contributed the idea to incorporate service work into the event.

“We felt that this was a positive way to support our president,” he said. “We didn’t want it to be like a counter-protest.”

Peck said participants in the rally participated in a food drive, collecting cans from neighborhood houses and donating all food in the name of the 2009 senior class.

“We felt this was in line with President Obama’s call to service and to get involved in the community,” she said.

When organizing the rally, Peck said the community members sought to support the president and the graduates without politicizing the graduation ceremony.

“We have never actually brought up the pro-life or the pro-choice [issue],” she said. “We don’t believe it is an issue as to why the president is here. He is here to give a commencement speech, not a political rally. So we’re here to support him and to support the seniors who are graduating.”

Dr. Patrick Whalen, president of the Catholic Democrats, a faculty member at the Harvard Medical School and a participant in the rally, said he believes Obama’s visit to Notre Dame highlighted the tensions between religion and politics in a medical setting.

“I think for Catholics, Notre Dame holds such a special place in the life of the country, and I think that president Obama is coming here is an important moment for many Catholics,” Whalen said. “It occurred to me years ago that all of the issues between religion and politics are medical ethics issues. We’ve been trying to help articulate why it is in fact that someone like Barack Obama is not in conflict with Catholic teaching.”

He said he got involved in the rally because he saw an opportunity for dialogue about these issues.

“I think that this is a great moment both for the church and for the life of the country, because it gives an opportunity to help launch this new dialogue, on why we don’t have to be in conflict, that there is common ground on these kinds of issues.”

Dan Jacobs contributed to this report.