At the Apollo, Obama says there’s nothing funny about the Republicans, to laughter

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Barack Obama at the Apollo. (youtube.com)
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On Thursday night, the Reverend Al Green did everything he could to rile up the crowd at the Apollo Theater, and then President Obama did almost everything he could to quiet them down.

Green had brought the packed house to its feet at the fund-raiser for the president, shedding his sunglasses and suit coat over the course of a few songs, as the crowd sang and bobbed along with him and a few back-up dancers.

There was still some of that residual excitement twenty minutes later—even after the drum sets and amplifiers had been replaced by an American flag backdrop—when Obama finally peeked his head out from behind a black curtain at the side of the stage.

He greeted the crowd with a smiling salute, as they broke into chants of "four more years!" And then, at the podium, he thanked Green and sang the opening lines of "Let's Stay Together," as the audience erupted into cheers.

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But the president had something more sober in mind.

"Have a seat, I've got something to say," he told them, and they settled back in.

In contrast with the transformational tone of the 2008 Obama campaign, the president cast the last election as simply the beginning of a difficult collective journey that was never really about him.

"When you decide to support someone named Barack Hussein Obama for president, you're not doing it because you think it'll be a cakewalk," Obama said.

While he said that realizing change would require another four years, he said that progress had been made.

"Because of what you did in 2008, we've started to see concrete examples of that change," he said. 

Some of these were crowd-pleasers (at least in front of a loyally Democratic crowd like this), like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and the overhaul of the American auto industry, the health care reform bill, and the wind-down of the American military presence Iraq.

Other examples of change were more quotidian, like an executive order mandating fuel efficiency.

"By the next decade, every car is going to be getting 55 miles per gallon," the president said. "That'll save you money, that'll save our environment, it's good for our national security—that's what change is. We got that done."

Change was also "the fight that we had to stop sending $60 billion in unnecessary subsidies to the banks in the student loan program."

Obama was the first sitting president ever to appear at the Apollo, his fourth stop on a fund-raising swing through the city. A few hundred people had packed the upper and lower decks, including elected officials like Representative Charlie Rangel, Assemblyman Keith Wright, and State Senators Bill Perkins and Gustavo Rivera, who were both enthusiastic, early Obama backers four years ago.

But there were only fleeting mentions of the personal story that was the cornerstone of his 2008 speech, and at times, it felt like the president was a star performer denying the crowd his hit songs.

When he mentioned the G.I. Bill and how it had helped his grandfather, the audience let out a big cheer.

In its place, was the more transactional, less inspirational tale of struggles with partisan gridlock. Without actually saying his name, Obama mentioned that the Senate minority leader had made it a top priority to make him a one-term president, and contrasted that with his own top priority, which he said was to create jobs.

"His top priority is to beat me," Obama said incredulously, to laughs. "That's how you know things aren't on the level. This is how you end up with a Republican Congress voting against things they used to support." 

The Republicans were a laugh line throughout the night, especially the presidential field that was, at the same time, holding its 17th debate in North Charleston, South Carolina.

"Why do you laugh?" the president deadpanned at one point, to more laughs. "They're running for president ..."

But he also tried to make a semi-serious case that the potential nominees showed the party had moved even further right in the four years since the G.O.P. chose John McCain to run against him.

"We have not seen a choice this stark in years," he said. "Even in 2008, the Republican nominee wasn't a climate-change denier. He was in favor of immigration reform. He was opposed to torture. The contrast this year could not be sharper."

The president's microphone was noticeably lower than either Green's or that of a previous performer, india.Arie, had been, making the address feel like a quiet conversation. At one point, a woman expressing her assent was loudly shushed by the crowd. And the quietness seemed to make it just a little difficult to rouse the crowd again when the president got to his closing crescendo.

"If you're able to generate that same passion and commitment, then I'll be there next to you," he said. "I've often said, as I said in 2008, I'm not a perfect man, I'm not a perfect president. But I promise that I've kept that promise I made in 2008 that I would always tell you what I thought, that I would always tell you where I stood and that I would wake up every single day fighting for you."

The crowd eventually got to its feet again, cheering loudly as the president waved goodbye and shook hands with people in the first row.

After the event they milled around the Apollo hallways, buying re-election gear from a merchandise table that was selling hats and buttons and "Obama 44" basketball jerseys.

Outside, about 10 protesters were still holding court across the street, carrying a sign that said "Obama [hearts] the 1%" and chanting: "Obama! Obama! Wall Street Stooge!"

But there was more interest, among the people leaving the event, in a button display down the street.

"Obama—and Michelle—buttons!" barked the vendor as a few people stopped to check them out. "They're back in Harlem! Get your button for the re-election!"