In his first trip to the Texas capital as president, Barack Obama served up little news but plenty of red meat for supporters in this decidedly Democratic part of the state. At a fundraiser benefiting the Democratic National Committee, Obama took swipe after swipe at Republicans for putting politics ahead of policy. Later, he talked higher education on the campus of the University of Texas, one of the nation's largest public universities.
While he was joined all day by a throng of current and former Texas politicians, the president steered clear of Texas politics. Republican Gov. Rick Perry greeted him briefly on the tarmac at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport — R.G. Ratcliffe of the Houston Chronicle reported the meeting lasted all of 34 seconds — and presented him with a letter asking for help on the border. But at events later in the day, Obama didn't mention Perry or his Democratic opponent in the governor's race, former Houston mayor Bill White. White, campaigning in Midland, Abilene and Alvarado, wasn't talking about Obama, either. Asked late last month why he wouldn't be attending any of the president's events today, White said, "I'm available by phone."
Journalists from the Tribune and KUT News covered every aspect of the president's time in Austin, filing pieces on his higher education remarks (including a slideshow), Perry's request for more National Guard troops on the border, and White's cold-shoulder treatment, along with my own pool report from the DNC fundraiser at the Four Seasons Hotel. I spent most of my morning waiting on the president outside the ballroom where lunch would be served. As high-dollar donors mingled, reporters were confined to a "press holding area.” Though no physical barrier kept us away from donors, the arrangement made clear we weren’t to be roaming around. A young advance man even escorted me to the bathroom (but was kind enough not to follow me in).
The luncheon — which cost a minimum of $5,000 to attend and as much as $30,400 for VIP seating and a photo op with Obama — hauled in around $1 million for the DNC. As a line of supporters waited outside UT’s Gregory Gymnasium for the afternoon speech, guests at the Four Seasons dined on watermelon salad, beef tenderloin and a medley of desserts before the president arrived from the airport. State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, stopped by the press area to take a question or two, and he didn't balk at suggestions that the state of Texas was serving as the national Democratic Party's cash machine. “It’s been done by every Democratic president since I’ve been in office,” Coleman said. “It’s just the nature of it. In Texas, [in] California, there’s money.”
Meanwhile, the Texas GOP used the visit to rally its base. Following Perry's brief meeting with Obama, the governor's tone turned ominous as he compared the violence on the Mexican border — and, by implication, the administration's failure to stop it — to the events leading up to Hitler's Germany, Pearl Harbor and 9/11. “Do we think about looking back to the 1930s in Europe, the South Pacific in late 1941 or even the United States in early September of 2001? There were early warning signs in all of those time frames that were ignored,” he told an audience at the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Lone Star Issues series. “We ignore the current warning signs along our international border at our own peril.”
Afterward, the governor said he would have enjoyed more time with Obama to discuss securing the borders. In a letter he delivered to Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett at the airport, he wrote that “the need for border security along the Rio Grande should no longer be underestimated by the federal government.” Speaking to reporters, Perry called the 286 National Guard troops deployed to the Texas-Mexico border a “fraud.” He reiterated his desire for 1,000 National Guard troops for Texas alone, which would stand in until an additional 3,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents descend upon the Texas border.
For his part, Obama had plenty to say about GOP failures. After taking the stage at the Four Seasons, he president spoke for a good half hour, without a teleprompter, touting his administration’s accomplishments and accusing Republicans of playing politics. “Right now the choice is between whether we go back to the policies that got us into this mess, or whether we continue with the policies that got us out of this mess,” Obama said. “And I’m confident that the American people, when they’re focused, as tough as these times are, they’re going to say, you know what, we can’t go back to the policies that were eroding our middle class and leading our jobs to go overseas. … I’m confident that the American people want something different.”
The only home state pol to be singled out during the fundraiser speech was U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, who sparked a Texas-sized uproar when he apologized to BP in a congressional hearing in June. "I don't know what he was thinking about. But it's consistent with a governing philosophy that says there shouldn't be any rules on the most powerful forces," Obama said.
The president's motorcade then rushed to the UT campus. In another 30-minute speech, this time before 4,000 young supporters at Gregory Gym, Obama noted his commitment to improving higher education and stressed the link between education and economic prosperity. While he announced no new policy initiatives, he pledged to increase the number of American college graduates: "I want us to produce 8 million more college graduates by 2020," he told the audience.
Video and slideshow of the president speaking on education:
As the president left Austin and headed to Dallas for another fundraiser, Central Texas Republicans organized a "Hands Off Texas" rally on the south steps of the Capitol. Erika Aguilar of KUT News, our public radio partner, filed this report from the GOP rally:
Tribune reporter Julian Aguilar, Tribune multimedia producer Todd Wiseman, photographers Spencer Selvidge and Bob Daemmrich, Ben Philpott of KUT News and the Tribune, and Erika Aguilar of KUT News contributed to this report.