By Jennifer Calfas, Managing News Editor
Published April 2, 2014
As President Barack Obama approached the podium at the Intramural Sports Building, more than 1,400 students and University affiliates rose from their seats, eliciting a thunderous applause.
Obama traveled to the University Wednesday to speak about his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour. In his speech, Obama pointed to the state’s efforts to support the bill and brought a partisan tone to his speech, calling out Republicans in Congress who oppose the proposal.
“You’ve got a choice,” Obama said. “You can give America the shaft, or you can give it a raise.”
Obama noted the extreme living conditions in America today, adding that some full-time workers are living in poverty despite holding steady employment. In Michigan, the minimum wage is $7.40 per hour.
While the average American who earns minimum wage is 35 years old, Obama noted the importance of establishing a higher minimum wage for college students — some of whom will be entering the workforce in a month.
“We should make it easier for your generation to get a foothold on the ladder of opportunity,” Obama said, with applause shortly following. “And we believe the economy grows best not from the top down, but from the mid out.”
Obama has made more visits to the University than any sitting president in history. In 2010, he served as the University’s Spring Commencement speaker. The president visited the University again in 2012 to discuss the rising cost of higher education — a point he touched on Wednesday.
“My point is we got to make sure that everybody can afford to do things that may not pay huge sums of money but are really valuable to society,” Obama said.
While many students filled the audience, University administrators and government officials also made a strong showing. Included among the attendees were University executive officers, members of the University’s Board of Regents, Rep. Gary Peters (D–Mich.), State Reps Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) and Adam Zemke (D–Ann Arbor) and Congressional candidate Debbie Dingell.
LSA senior Mira Friedlander, a restaurant server who finances her college education with her minimum wage job, introduced the president before he gave his remarks. In an interview after the speech, Friedlander said she was honored to introduce the president, especially before a speech that would hit close to home.
“It was completely surreal,” she said.
Obama’s address comes only a day after the White House announced that 7.1 million Americans signed up for the Affordable Care Act. The president cited the success of the legislation as another mechanism he has used to ensure that every American has an opportunity to succeed. Raising the minimum wage, he said, is another shot at granting Americans the success the country promised in its founding.
In an interview after the speech, Regent Mark Bernstein (D–Ann Arbor) said Obama’s multiple visits to campus signify the University’s role in national issues of concern.
“It speaks to the stature of this great public university,” Bernstein said. “Each time his message has been targeted at a student body that i think appreciates his message. It’s a great honor to participate in that kind of experience.”
Bernstein added that he and several other University officials met with Obama before his speech.
During the address, more than 100 students lined the bleachers behind him with an American flag draped above them on the IM Building’s brick wall. Some of these students included Business senior Michael Proppe, CSG president; LSA senior Phil Schermer, MUSIC Matters president; and LSA senior Tyrell Collier, Black Student Union president, among other campus leaders.
In an interview after the event, E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, said the office of Student Life chose which students to invite to sit in the selected seats. While many of them were leaders of prominent campus organizations, Harper said some represented sectors of campus that are less well known — including first-generation college students, international students, students who work in campus dining halls and some who grew up in foster care.
“We tried to be really thoughtful,” Harper said. “Some were students in leadership roles, but others were students who lead in a very different way.”
Students showed up in droves Monday afternoon to wait for their chance to secure their spot at the event. The University distributed tickets on a first-come, first-served basis Tuesday morning at 9 a.m., motivating students to wait in line overnight for the opportunity to see the president.
Harper said this commitment to engaging in campus life showed how willing the students are to interact with the world around them.
“Our students are always engaged and thinking about what’s going on in the world and they’re just smart in that way,” Harper said. “They’re politically smart. I think students on boths sides of the issues kind of want to be in the conversation.”
Bernstein echoed Harper’s sentiments after Obama’s speech, adding that students are engaged in nationally pertinent topics.
“We have a uniquely engaged student body,” Bernstein said. “It shows that we have students that are intensely interested in matters of consequence that face this nation.”
Schermer, who interned with the National Economic Council in the White House last summer, said in an interview after the event that Obama’s speech gave resounding statistical economic and public policy evidence for raising the minimum wage.
Proppe said Obama’s emphasis on lowering the cost of higher education was particularly important for the University community. To ease costs on higher education, the University has initiated a host of cost-containment initiatives — including the lowest increase in tuition in recent years and an uptick in financial aid funding.
As for Obama’s strong presence at the University, Proppe said his willingness to come back again and again is due to the thriving entrepreneurship community.
“A lot of really motivated people live here and things start in Ann Arbor and spread nationally,” Proppe said. “I think the president understands that.”
Before his speech, Obama ordered a #2 Reuben from Ann Arbor landmark, Zingerman’s Delicatessen — which Obama said is an example of a business that values its employees. Zingerman’s co-owner Paul Saginaw pays his employees more than minimum wage.
“Zingerman’s is a business that treats its workers well, and rewards honest work with honest wages,” Obama said. “And that’s worth celebrating.”
Over lunch, Obama spoke to Friedlander about her experience navigating college depending financially on her minimum wage job. While she said she was surprised by Obama’s calm demeanor, Friedlander said she was upset he chose a “new pickle” over an “old pickle” to supplement his sandwich — a Zingerman’s tradition that Ann Arbor residents take pride in.
“It was the most unreal thing of my entire life, but it made me comfortable introducing him,” Friedlander said. “But then speaking was the biggest high in the world. I thought, ‘Who gets to introduce the leader of the free world?’”
Among passionate statements in support of raising the minimum wage, Obama jokingly recalled his decision to choose the Michigan State University basketball team as the champions of his March Madness bracket. At the beginning of his speech, Obama mentioned University basketball players Jordan Morgan, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas, congratulating them on their season and run in the tournament.
“My bracket’s a mess,” Obama said. “I learned my lesson: I will not pick against the Wolverines.”