Obama and the Two Virginias

(Jamelle Bouie)

President Obama in Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday

Well before President Obama arrived for his Wednesday rally in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, local Tea Partiers had gathered to protest his event and promise an end to his tyrannical administration. Assembled in the nearest open space—a park set adjacent to downtown—and with a massive equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee as their backdrop, they denounced Obama’s record with fighting words. “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive,” said Republican state Delegate Rob Bell, quoting Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter to Abigail Adams. “It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then.”

Bishop E.W. Jackson, a black Tea Party activist and cable news commentator who lost a longshot campaign for the U.S. Senate nomination this year, attacked Obama for … everything. In his ten-minute speech, he hit Obama for sealing his college transcripts—“Release them!”—for supporting same-sex marriage, and for leading the American people into “dependency.” (Sometime in the middle of this jeremiad, a younger African American man walked by the park and screamed that Jackson was an “Uncle Tom motherfucker.” Jackson was unphased.)

It was a beautiful day—warm, clear skies and a nice breeze—and about 100 people came out to support the Tea Party cause. Joe Thomas, who MC’ed the event—and is master of ceremonies for most “Jefferson-area” Tea Party gatherings—was happy with the turnout. “We only had five days notice to organize something, and it’s in the middle of the week. I think we did pretty good.”

True enough. To right-wing residents of Albemarle County, like conservative radio host Rob Schilling, “Charlottesville” is the “People’s Republic of Charlottesville”—an unfortunate haven for permissiveness and liberal radicalism. Still, the hope was that someone would come by and change their minds about Obama.

That wasn’t going to happen. Indeed, just across the street, on the “Downtown Mall” of Charlottesville, thousands of the president’s fans were lined up to enter the 3,500-seat pavilion and see Barack Obama. 

It was a striking illustration of the sharp divide in Virginia right now. There are essentially two different Virginias competing for power. The first is familiar to anyone with any knowledge of the South; it’s older, whiter, and hostile to anything that smacks of government interference. The other Virginia, by contrast, is younger, browner, more educated, and more willing to support government action in the economic sphere. 

Obama might be able to out-draw Old Virginia by the thousands on one day in Charlottesville. But over the last four years, the two Virginias have jostled for power. New won in 2008, while old struck back in 2009 and 2010. 2012 is a rematch, and given the degree to which Virginia is a key swing state—and crucial for Democratic or Republican control of the Senate—the winner of this battle could determine the future of the Commonwealth, and the country. 

This was the president’s fourth trip to Charlottesville (and his 12th to Virginia this year). His first was five years ago, when he was still a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and still running far behind Hillary Clinton. Even then, people in town were enthusiastic for his candidacy, and that would help translate that into a big primary victory that clinched Obama’s victory. He returned after winning the nomination, as part of a broader plan to paint Virginia blue for the first time in 44 years, since Lyndon Johnson rode Barry Goldwater’s extremism to a landslide victory. He was also there in support of Tom Pereiello, a liberal congressional candidate who would eventually win the district by the slimmest of margins, and almost entirely on the strength of his support at U.Va.

Obama’s most recent trip had been quite different. That was in 2010, when he was trying to help prevent a landslide loss in the midterm elections. Republicans captured all but two of Virginia’s congressional seats that year, to go with their statewide wins of 2009, when Bob McDonnell was elected governor and Ken Cuccinelli was elevated to attorney general.

Virginia is a key part of Obama’s electoral fortunes, and Charlottesville—on account of its large student population—is a key area for winning votes. Which is why he arrived at the beginning of the school year, when Grounds (U.Va’s fancy term for “campus”) is saturated with newly-minted first-years (our fancy term for “freshmen”). Even if it’s held off-Grounds—the school administration rejected a request to hold the event at the University proper—a rally is an excellent way for the Obama campaign to register new voters, contact former volunteers, and turn a few of them into dedicated staffers. Which is why Obama’s speech was heavy on inspiration and what his administration has done for young people, and light on anti-Republican rhetoric: 

“We created a college tax credit that’s saving middle-class families up to $10,000 on college tuition.”

“We won the fight to prevent student loan rates from doubling for more than 7 million students.”

“Today, because of the new health care law, affectionately known as Obamacare, because of that law, nearly 7 million young people are able to stay on their parent’s health insurance plans.”

The campaign had managed to pack 7,500 people into the pavillion, and it appeared that nearly all of them were sold. The audience—an even mix of students and residents—shouted down a small group of hecklers, spontaneously burst into cheers of “four more years,” and screamed in support when Obama promised to protect reproductive rights.

Opinions of Obama ran positive—more than I was expecting. Gale, a 70-year-old retiree, called the president a “delightful” human being whom she is supporting because “as a mother, grandmother, wife, aunt and sister, I don’t want to return to the 1950s—which I remember.” Jenny Mead, a self-identified independent, said she’s unhappy with the partisanship of the Obama era, but blamed Republicans for most of it. When it comes to the president’s performance, she’s “impressed.” “I don’t think that you can deliver on every promise,” she said.

Conor, a student at U.Va, was energized by the message of the president’s reelection campaign, “The question for this was, compared to last time, how do you use optimism again? You tweak it to make it salient.” He continued, “Four years ago it was ‘change,’ now it’s ’forward’—we didn’t get everything done and we need you to vote. I like it.” Outside the Tea Party protest, I only met one person with critical words for Obama—Marie, an intelligence analyst whose only complaint was that he wasn’t doing enough to hit back against Mitt Romney. “To be honest, I think he’s been a little too soft.”

So far in this election, voters like Conor and Marie have the upper hand—Obama maintains a steady lead in the Commonwealth. But Charlottesville's paltry Tea Party notwithstanding, the conservatives of Old Virginia aren't weak; they hold most statewide offices and dominate Virginia's congressional delegation. New Virginia is large, but if Obama can't bring it to the polls, then his advantage won't mean much.

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