Despite the 20 degree weather, members of the University community, Ann Arbor and Michigan residents joined the capacity crowd of 4,000 people that slowly passed through security and filed into Al Glick Field House early Friday morning to hear President Barack Obama present his plan for financial aid reform.
Attendees expressed a variety of perceptions about his address and the president’s overall performance as a leader thus far, some demonstrating strong support, others expressing feelings of disillusion. In addition to the students who waited eagerly outside, clutching tickets they had waited all-night to receive, a group of protesters also formed outside the event, dispelling the president’s stance on issues from abortion to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Before the speech, LSA senior Jon Hornstein said he looked forward to hearing Obama’s plans for higher education, particularly since he intends to work in higher education consulting after graduation. After the speech, Hornstein said he felt Obama’s address was well delivered.
“I think that he brought something to the table that was going to relate to us,” Hornstein said. “He talked about affordable education, something that is all near and dear to our hearts and I think he gave a call to action a lot of times … I definitely think he inspired people, which is what I was looking for.”
Tee Thompson, who owns an independent event production company in Detroit, said she was impressed to see Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attend the event, which she added showed the importance of affordable higher education to the Obama administration.
“I was standing next to a student who said she’s in law school and her current loan amount is $200,000,” Thompson said. “To look at rewarding higher institutions as a result of them impacting the students and the reduction of tuition is important, that is significant to taking our country to the next level.”
Some of those in the crowd said their views of Obama have changed since his election in 2008. LSA senior Kerith Asma, who waited in line for five hours for her ticket to see the president, said she has become disillusioned with Obama.
“I’ve definitely been a little bit disappointed in the execution of his policies and how things have gone,” Asma said. “But at this point, I’ll probably still vote for Obama based on the lack of quality Republican candidates.”
Engineering junior Dan Caldwell waited nine hours for his ticket and said the past four years have strengthened his support for Obama.
“I actually like Obama more than I did when he was going into office,” Caldwell said. “I didn’t have a lot of faith in him because there was a lack of the type of experience I typically look for, but I definitely like him a lot better now that’s been four years.”
Caldwell added that he would also wait nine hours to hear a speech from the top Republican candidate. As an independent and a first-time voter in a presidential election, Caldwell attended the event to hear about Obama’s policies, which he hopes to have the opportunity to do for the emerging Republican candidate as well.
University alum Karen Wanza, who volunteered for the Obama campaign in 2008, attributed mounting criticism that the president has failed to enact change to the Republicans holding a majority in Congress and blocking legislative initiatives.
“I feel sorry for him,” Wanza said. “I don’t think he realized it would be such a setback with the Republicans crippling Washington.”
University alum Bruce Sanderson compared Obama’s struggle to pass legislation in Congress to junior quarterback Denard Robinson’s fight to persevere through the opponents’ defense during Michigan football games.
“Obama could be Denard, but he’s got Boehner on his heels dragging him down,” Sanderson said. “If we could manage to get free of Boehner or get some more defense, we could maybe make some progress.”
While the crowd was largely comprised of Obama supporters, a group of about 25 vocalizing a variety of complaints against President Obama protested outside the field house during his speech.
While the University’s chapter of College Republicans decided not to participate in the protest, some members of the official branches of the Republican Party in the state came out to demonstrate their opposition toward the president.
Norm Shinkle, chair of the Republican Party in Ingham County, said there were people from multiple counties around Michigan protesting against Obama’s policies.
“We just want our president and his friends to know that there are some people who think he hasn’t done a very good job and that he shouldn’t get reelected,” Shinkle said.
Multiple student protesters said they did not approve of Obama’s economic policies, but they were not against Obama’s presence at the University.
LSA junior Matt Jones, the student coordinator of the protest, said while it was an honor to have the president speak at the University, he protested to represent the percentage of Michigan residents that “completely disagree with the direction the president is taking the country.”
Engineering freshman Sam Shrago agreed with Jones, adding that he feels the president’s policies have hurt businesses and decreased job opportunities.
“We respect the office of the presidency, but we just believe he’s done a terrible job and he’s killing businesses and killing jobs,” Shrago said.
Jones added that protestors did not intend to “take cheap shots at President Obama,” referring specifically to the actions of protesters toward Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, when he spoke at the University in October. In the middle of Cantor’s speech, protesters associated with the Occupy movement stood up and turned their backs to Cantor.
The protesters outside of Obama’s speech included those who were anti-abortion, anti-fracking, anti-Israel and Tea Party members. LSA sophomore Joe Lipa, events chair of Students for Life, an anti-abortion advocacy group, said he was frustrated that the issue of abortion has become less of a prominent issue of national debate.
“We’re seeing unprecedented attacks both on the unborn and also on religious freedoms,” Lipa said.
While most of the protesters left after the majority of ticket holders entered the field house, three people showed up to protest hydraulic fracturing — the process of inserting water and chemicals in the ground to extract natural gas —in Michigan when attendees left the event.
LuAnne Kozma, cofounder of Ban Michigan Fracking, said her group aims to ban fracking completely since it allows dangerous chemicals to enter the groundwater supply.
“We already know that fracking isn’t safe and that it is never going to be safe,” Kozma said.