Obama Fills Patriot Center for Final Rally Before Healthcare Vote

 
President Barack Obama waves to the crowd packing the Patriot Center to hear him speak on his plans for health reform and its upcoming vote in Congress. (Peter Flint)
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UPDATED 5:46 p.m. 

President Barack Obama was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd in the Patriot Center this Friday as he took the podium to discuss the health reform bill publicly for the final time before this Sunday's vote.

The crowd, which filled over 8,000 of the 10,000 seats, was largely enthusiastic, with the dissenters quickly drowned out by the cheers of the president's supporters. 

The Young and the Restless Audience | Protests on the Scene
A Prayer and a Prelude | The Main Event | 

The Young and the Restless Audience


The crowd looks to the stage, eagerly awaiting the president's arrival. (Peter Flint)

Over 200 people were lined up outside of the Patriot Center at 6 a.m. By 10 a.m., the line to get into the Patriot Center trailed approximately a mile away to the front of Aquatic and Fitness Center. The President was not scheduled to speak until 11:30 a.m.

The audience consisted largely of students, though many citizens and representatives of other groups attended the ticketless, free to the public event. The White House sent out a text message the morning of the event to those signed up for such updates encouraging people to attend.

Junior Whitney Burton was invited to sit behind the president and appear on TV due to her involvement as the president and founder of Mason Change Makers.

“The security guys asked if I was alone and then said ‘sit here, you’re going to be behind the president on national television,’” Burton said. “I’m excited. I didn’t even have to wait!”

Other student leaders stood immediately in front of the President during his speech.

“Healthcare is a really hot topic issue right now,” Student Body Vice President Tyler King said. “A lot of us are pretty excited to be here.”

“I think it’s just a great opportunity to be this close to the president during his presentation,” Zeta Tau Alpha president Michelle Stapleton said. “It’s a great honor.”

Attendees were led to seats by section in order to control the number of people entering the Patriot Center. Though not every section was full, a large number of students were also gathered on the floor in front of the stage. A large press presence was also noted, including international reporters. Doors closed at approximately 11 a.m.

Protests on the Scene

Various groups protested the event and health reform in the parking lots outside the Patriot Center. (Nicole Francisco)

A scant group of protesters began convening at the south entrance of the Patriot Center at 8:45 a.m. with signs, banners, “Don’t Tread on Me” and American flags; but once traffic had subsided two hours later, the group swelled to over 200. The protesters came from student groups, pro-life advocacy groups, Tea Party members and supporters of Republican congressional candidate Keith Fimian.

Originally, the protesters were asked to stay in a parking lot directly facing the sidewalk where attendees were queuing up, but as the tension and numbers grew on both sides, the separation between the two groups lessened. After numerous chants of “health care now” and “kill the bill” from both attendees and protesters, Fairfax and Mason police drew a literal line between the groups, placing police tape as a barrier.

Both groups thrust shouts, chants, songs and signs into the air. But it was a protester with a bullhorn who spurred the most conflict.

After shouting “why did Obama come to unemployed college students to pass a bill,” the self-proclaimed Tea Party protester received a heated reaction by students from Campus Progress, an advocacy group from the Center for American progress, who countered his attack by chants of “I am employed!”

About thirty minutes before Obama was scheduled to speak, most of the attendees had filed inside and protesters began to dissipate from the scene.

A Prayer and a Prelude


Rev Denise Giacomozzi May of GMU United College Ministries invoked messages of equality and universal care in the invocation before the event. (Peter Flint)

A quartet of Mason songsters sang various musical songs, from Cole Porter to songs from Chicago, an all too appropriate reference to Obama’s home, as students filed into the 10,000 seat center. In anticipation of the President’s speech, spontaneous chants of “Obama” and “Yes we can!” broke out from the crowd, sometimes simultaneously.

Rev. Denise Giacomozzi May of GMU United College Ministries delivered an invocation, some of which advocated for healthcare reform. Some of the audience broke into cheers several times during her prayer.

‘There is no security among us if one among us cannot receive treatment for their cancer, medications for his chronic illness,” May said. “Forbid it that we neglect the children, the frail, the elderly, the man who has lost his job, the woman whose work will never pay enough, the millions who suffer in body, mind and spirit- who if we could but reorder our thinking might be made whole or at least have their pains lessened.”

University Professor of Music Patricia Miller sang the national anthem to cheers.

The Main Event

President Obama spoke about the historic importance of this Sunday's vote, emphasizing what it would mean for millions of American, including students. (Peter Flint)

Right on time, Obama walked onto the stage to the tune of “Hail to the Chief” and took off his coat with a smile, yelling, “Hello George Mason!” In turn, he was greeted with enthusiastic roars from the standing and applauding crowd.

Obama started his speech with a smiling look back at his first visit at George Mason, three years ago in February 2007.

“This was just at the dawn of my presidential campaign,” Obama said. “We didn’t have a lot of money, didn’t have lot of staff—nobody could pronounce my name. Our poll numbers were quite low. A lot of people in Washington didn’t even think it was worth us trying.”

“But even then there was a group of students here at George Mason that believed that. . . we could finally bring change to that city across the river,” he said. “We believed that despite all the opposition we could make Washington work—not for the lobbyists, not for the politicians—but for the American people.”

The President joked about the current March Madness frenzy, saying that he spoke with Coach Jim Larranaga and saying he hoped to include George Mason in his bracket next year.

“I love you!’ he shouted to the Mason crowd before starting into his speech. The Patriot Center again erupted in cheers.

The pep rally atmosphere of the event then continued as Obama continued into his topic of the day: healthcare.

“Every single president has said we need to fix this system,” Obama said. “It’s a debate that’s not only about the cost of healthcare—not just about what we’re doing about the folks that aren’t getting a fair shake from their insurance company—it’s a debate about the character of this country.”

Obama harshly criticized the current system of healthcare, calling it “a system that works better for the insurance companies than it does for the American people.”

“If this vote fails, the insurance industry will continue to run amok,” Obama said.

“Are we going to let the special interests win again?” Obama said, greeted by a roaring ‘no’, “…or are we going to make this vote a victory for the American people?” greeted by deafening “YES WE CAN!”

Obama spoke out fiercely against healthcare bill opponents, calling many of their arguments “nonsense.”

“They have thrown every argument at this legislative effort- but at the end of day, what we’re talking about is common sense reform,” Obama said. “This is the patients’ bill of rights on steroids.”

The President also played to his young crowd by referring to a specific section of the bill that would allow children to stay on their parents’ health insurance until they are 26.

He finished his speech nearly shouting over the crowd, urging students to talk to their friends and their parents about healthcare reform.

“Together, we will make history!” the President yelled.

 

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C2M Staff Writer Lauren Jost contributed coverage of the protests outside the Patriot Center for this article.