On the campaign trail, it’s good to be President–and not just because your bus gets to run red lights and has all the equipment you need to watch Wimbledon or run a war. It’s good because Americans respond, almost instinctively, to the importance of your office. “I’ve been coming here my whole life,” said Julia Konieczny, a 19-year-old sitting at a corner table at the Kozy Corners diner in Oak Harbor, Ohio, on Thursday. “But this is the coolest thing that has ever happened—ever.”
She was talking about the fact that Barack Obama was about to walk in—“Everybody just pretend like I’m not here,” he joked–and sit down to eat a cheeseburger and fries. After meeting the president, Konieczny wiped her eyes. She said her grandmother, who co-owned the diner, had started to cry across the room. “I think my grandfather is having a hard time too,” she added.
Even the local press feels the charge. A few feet away, Andy Ouriel, a reporter with the local Sandusky Register, a 22,000-circulation paper, talked about how he wrote personal letters to Obama, and columns in his paper, requesting the presidential visit that was about to happen. No President had come to Sandusky since Harry Truman on a whistle-stop tour in 1948, and Obama was going be distributing ice cream downtown. “Is that [White House Press Secretary] Jay Carney?” Konieczny asked her friend, pointing to a man who has just entered a side door. It was. “Told you it was Jay Carney,” she continued, “because he has adorable glasses.”
Obama, who long ago learned the charms of celebrity, knows how to parlay this attention. Over a two-day bus tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania, which brought him to two diners, a bakery, a fruit stand and a bar, he charmed, hugged, chatted, swigged, chewed, posed and quipped with the locals, hoping to transform the excitement about his office into votes for his reelection.
For dozens of miles, locals came out of their homes, in stifling heat, often without shirts on, women in just their bathing suits, to line the state roads and wave to his motorcade. When he met elderly couples, he would ask how long they had been together, ask for their secret, delivering his own punch line: “Just do whatever she tells you to.” When he saw groups of locals sitting together, he would call them “troublemakers.” When encountering teenage boys, he asked what sport they played.
He asked hundreds of adults their names, and dozens of children their ages. “It’s nice to meet you,” he would say, over and over. “Hi, how are you?” He squeezed the thigh of a baby, signed the sketchbook of a young girl with the message “Dream Big Dreams,” and attempted to buy peaches and cookies for his traveling press corps. (The offers were declined.) “Let me tell you, first of all, I love nurses,” Obama said, after meeting one. “Can I tell you? You look great. This is a good looking woman.”
In Sandusky, Ohio, a weeping woman, Stephanie Miller, whose sister had died of cancer after being denied insurance, hugged him on the rope line. “I thanked him for the getting the Affordable Health Act passed,” she said later.
The trip was the first of many expected summer tours of swing states, where Obama will attempt to reintroduce himself to voters as a likable everyman, who connects with the hopes and agony of the country in ways that his rival Mitt Romney does not. While Romney vacationed with his family, a boat and a jet ski at his New Hampshire estate, the president told of his childhood vacations “on Greyhound buses,” when the ice machine at the Howard Johnsons “was like a big deal.”
Just as the effects of his charm was evident, the challenge ahead for Obama was easy to find in the crowds. Raymond Millard, a warehouse manager, was nursing a Bud Light at Ziggy’s bar in Amherst, Ohio, when the President showed up. He said his vote was up for grabs in November. “I’m a lifelong Democrat,” he said, “but I don’t know.”
The problem was not the President as much as the ungovernable city he had failed to return to order. “It’s all about just fighting each other,” Millard said of Washington, D.C. political culture. “I’m not disappointed in him particularly, just the way things are. It seems like there is a lot of fighting and everybody is for their side.”
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A few stools away, Sabrina Schaeffer, 6, was eating dinner with her siblings. “This is the first time I’m going to meet someone important,” she proudly informed a reporter. Her brother Shane, 11, said he planned to ask the President if he had seen the YouTube video of Obama singing Call Me Maybe, a pop song of the moment, through the magic of editing. “You just go to YouTube and you look up ‘Barack Obama singing Call Me Maybe,’ ” he explained to a reporter, unaware of the footage.
Art Davis, the children’s stepfather and a disabled veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, sat with them, saying he was undecided about the upcoming election, despite the urgings of Sabrina to vote Obama. “I am a supporter of Barack Obama, but right now I am a veteran and I am kind of concerned with one of the issues going on,” he said.
Minutes later, the President was at their table, asking his children’s names and ages. (Shane never did ask the President about the YouTube video.) But Davis did raise his concern about veterans issues, and the two men spoke for several minutes. Davis explained that a group he belonged to, Iraq And Afghanistan Veterans of America had been trying without success to get a meeting with Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs Eric Shinseki to discuss the backlog in disability claims.
The President called over his traveling aide, Marvin Nicholson, to get Davis’s contact information, and promised that one of his aides, Darienne Page, would follow up to address his concerns. Obama also gave Davis a presidential challenge coin, a symbolic military token designed to cement their relationship.
The President moved on, talking to another undecided voter who offered to vote for Obama if the President beat him in an arm wrestling contest. “No, I’ll play basketball for your vote,” Obama responded.
Davis showed off his new coin to friends, looking impressed. Asked if Obama had won his vote, Davis smiled sheepishly. “He’s getting there,” he said.