President Barack Obama ventured Wednesday to a mostly blue-collar region of the United States and tried to engage an audience that was cold to him.
The 15 community college students who were picked to stand immediately behind the president, and in view of the TV cameras, mostly stood stone-faced through his speech.
At the end, when the president walked back from the podium to smile and wave at the roughly 60 people in the bleachers 20 feet behind him, he faced a unfriendly wall of faces.
The White House video of the bleacher’s front rank shows three men with their hands crossed, one with his hands stuck in his pockets and one who let his arms fall by his sides.
Obama flew to the Community College of Allegheny County, in Oakdale, Pa., so he could tout a new spending program that is intended to encourage technical training at community colleges.
Oakdale is a suburb of Pittsburgh, and is part of the 18th Congressional District, now held by Republican Tim Murphy. Oakdale’s population is roughly 1,500, down from roughly 2,000 in 1980.
Obama usually speaks at universities and colleges that contain supportive young people where attendees cry out “I love you!”
A January poll of registered Pennsylvanian voters by the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College showed that only 30 percent rated his performance at “good” or “excellent.”
Obama briefly acknowledged the slowly recovering economy, but promised an end. “We’ve spent the past five-and-a-half years fighting back from the worst economic crisis in our lifetimes [and] the good news is our economy is growing again, our businesses are creating jobs.”
Vice President Joe Biden, who introduced Obama, also admitted the lousy economy. “We face challenges, as the president will speak to briefly, as a consequence of that God-awful, lingering recession that just brought us that close to a depression,” he said.
Those concessions didn’t warm up the audience.
The White House’s transcript of Obama’s speech includes the laugh lines that few of the almost 300 attendees laughed at.
“Hello, Allegheny County! (Applause.) Joe and I decided it was time for a guys’ trip. (Laughter.) Actually, Michelle and Jill wanted us out the house. (Laughter.) So we decided to take a little road trip,” says the transcript, even though the video shows the laughs were scattered and muted.
The guys on the bleachers showed no reaction when Obama offered up some easy compliments about the technology training at the college.
“Now, I have to say that before I came here I didn’t know there was such a thing as mechatronics. (Laughter.) Sounds like something that Godzilla would be fighting. (Laughter.),” says the official transcript.
Some of Obama’s applause lines fell so flat that no one is heard to respond, not even among the main audience, which was padded with his political supporters.
“I mean, there’s been great progress in this area. You’ve earned a great nickname — ‘Roboburgh’ — because you’ve got high-tech plants and workplaces that are adding jobs faster than workers can fill them,” Obama said, to silence.
The main audience included Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, Sen. Bob Casey, Rep. Mike Doyle, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, and the college president, Quintin Bullock, plus their staffs and aides.
At the end, the very loud Bruce Springsteen exit song hid the lack of applause.
The clapping was so sparse that the White House’s video shows hardly any applause by his supporters and appointees in front of his podium.
The video shows how Obama ended his speech quickly, without the emotional buildup that he usually delivers to his younger supporters, and then turned around to face the bleachers that were behind him.
Accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, he walked about 10 feet to the back of his podium, where he waved at the TV-background bleachers behind him.
He waved, but the bleacher audience stared back, with no visible applause.
Hands in pockets, folded in front or by their sides, the guys stared back.
They’ll get another opportunity to send another message on Nov. 4.