SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — President Barack Obama told Mainers on Friday evening that re-electing him is a vote for a strengthening economy, saying Republican challengers are proposing to “go back to the very same policies that got us into this mess in the first place.”
The Friday visit to Maine also provided many of the state’s top Democrats chances to further their agendas directly with their party’s most powerful member. Maine’s two Democratic representatives in the U.S. House handed Obama gifts symbolic of their respective initiatives and Portland Mayor Michael Brennan captured valuable one-on-one time while riding in the presidential limousine.
The president, speaking first on Friday to a sold-out Hutchinson Union Building Athletic Center at Southern Maine Community College, described Republican hopefuls — a crowd that includes former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — as politicians who will leave behind the least fortunate Americans as the economy recovers from the recent recession.
“They want to go back to the days when Wall Street played by its own rules; they want to roll back health care,” Obama said. “Their philosophy is simple: ‘You’re on your own. … If you’re a young person coming out of poverty, pull yourself up by your bootstraps even if you don’t have boots.’”
The president talked about his early term proposals to cement wage equality between genders and more recently efforts to eliminate the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding homosexual service members, to draw down the number of military personnel serving in war zones overseas and reduce tax breaks for “Big Oil.”
“Let’s take the money we’re spending at war, take half of it to pay down our debt and take the other half for nation building here at home,” Obama told the enthusiastic South Portland crowd, calling for increased spending on transportation infrastructure and social service programs.
He added, “For the first time in our history, you don’t have to hide who you love in order to serve the country you love.”
The commander in chief also called for higher taxes on Americans earning more than $250,000 annually.
“This is not class warfare, this is not class envy,” the president told the South Portland crowd. “This is just basic math. If somebody like me gets a tax break that we don’t need and the country can’t afford, either it adds to our deficit or it takes something away from somebody else.”
The president said he hopes the next hot spot for manufacturing isn’t in Asia or another location overseas but rather “right here in Maine.”
He touted the automaker bailout as one way he helped keep manufacturers afloat during the recession.
“I don’t want Americans to be known just for buying and consuming things,” Obama said. “I want Americans to be known for building things. … We’re a nation of builders.”
Obama had two fundraiser events scheduled in Maine on Friday, starting with a speech at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland — where ticket prices started at $44 for students and $100 for members of the public — and followed up with a private nightcap for bigger money donors at the Portland Museum of Art.
For a $10,000 ticket to the second event, a donor reportedly could meet and get his or her picture taken with the president.
The most recent campaign fundraising reports show that Obama finished February with a war chest of nearly $173 million, more than double the amount raised at the time by top Republican fundraiser Romney.
Friday represented Obama’s third visit to Maine while in office, following a trip to Portland to advocate for health care reform in April 2010 and a family vacation to Mount Desert Island four months later.
Preceding the president on the Hutchinson Union Building Athletic Center stage Friday were several notable Maine Democrats.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who also owns cattle on North Haven, said before the president’s arrival that she plans to give Obama ground beef from Maine with no “pink slime,” in part to help hammer home the congresswoman’s interest in bills to block use of the pink meat filler in schools and benefit small farms.
Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell told attendees in South Portland that it’s “critical Barack Obama be re-elected.” Mitchell talked about the president’s track record overseas, working to curb the global stockpile of nuclear weapons while “protecting our sovereignty.”
“For 10 long years, Republicans talked tough about Osama bin Laden,” Mitchell said. “Obama said little, but then had him killed. There is the difference between men of bluster and a man of action.”
While U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, did not make an appearance at SMCC, he promised before the president’s visit to give Obama a pair of custom-made New Balance sneakers, made in Maine. Like Pingree’s offering, Michaud’s gift was meant to highlight one of the congressman’s proposals, in this case a bill requiring the Pentagon to purchase American-made footwear for service members.
In afternoon hours before the president’s speech at Southern Maine Community College, a line of ticket holders stretched around three blocks, nearly a third of a mile, with some supporters showing up before 2 p.m., nearly three hours before the president arrived.
Life-sized cardboard cutouts of Barack and Michelle Obama greeted supporters as the line turned the final corner from Benjamin W. Pickett Street onto Fort Road. Just a few protesters could be seen across the street and they arrived at the early event with different ideologies. One man held a sign reading, “Christ Died for the UnGodly,” and another held a sign saying, “Let’s not be pushed into war with Iran.”
Camilla Shannon of Yarmouth — who attended the South Portland event with her parents, two young children and husband — said she hoped Obama’s message for Maine would become his consistent re-election campaign message as well.
“It’s very exciting, but it’s also smart on his part, because it gives him a chance to see a different part of the country,” Shannon said, “to see what his people want and need.”
Martha Hulbert of Woolwich described herself as “manifestly” excited to see the president speak.
“Maine is a state of wonderful levity and sanity,” Hulbert said, “and it will reinforce for him that there are some clear thinkers left in the nation.”
Not everyone in the Portland area was celebrating the president’s local events Friday night.
In the downtown near the Portland Museum of Art, members of OccupyMaine gathered with drums and signs in protest of the influence of money on politics, which occupiers said they felt was on display in Obama’s high-priced fundraising events in Maine.
Providing snacks for the occupiers was state Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, who handed out doughnut holes from Cookie Jar Bakery in her hometown, as well as satirically named “SuperPACs” of lobster-shaped cookies on sale “for $25,000” each.
Dill, one of four Democrats seeking the party nomination to run for the seat of retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, said she’s giving the proceeds from Friday night’s doughnut hole stand to local homelessness and hunger prevention organization Preble Street.
“I’m hopeful some of the people who paid $30,000 to see Obama will come out and donate some money to help homeless children, too,” said Dill. “The point I’m trying to make is that ordinary Americans are getting priced out of democracy. … I support the president, he’s my candidate and I understand he’s got to play by the [campaign fundraising] rules he’s been given, but if I’m elected, I plan to change the rules.”
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan found himself in the surprise position of talking to the president directly and at some length about issues facing Portland and how the federal government might help.
Brennan told the Bangor Daily News on Friday night he was caught off-guard when, after the mayor greeted the president coming off Air Force One at Portland International Jetport, Obama invited Brennan to ride in the presidential limousine to SMCC.
Brennan said he used the opening to tout Portland’s strong points — an unusually low 6 percent unemployment rate and a strong arts district, among other things — and also to seek federal help in tackling some local challenges.
The mayor said he told the president Portland needs help covering $170 million in sewer system upgrades facing the city because of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demands, and he also talked with Obama about the local groundfishing industry, which Brennan said is struggling with federal quotas and fleet financing.
Brennan also said he told the president he took heart in Obama’s call in his State of the Union address for teenagers to stay in school until they’re 18 years old, and told the commander in chief efforts to implement such a requirement are under way in Maine.
“He was very congenial and very easy to talk to,” said Brennan, who also has met former Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Harry Truman. “He asked a lot of questions. He said that he enjoyed the visits he’s had to Maine and that Maine is a beautiful state.”