BOISE, Idaho — Six rows of parking spaces are all that separate Boise State University’s glittering basketball arena from its arch-roofed football practice field.
Only a few steps from one to the other. But a longer walk for President Obama.
In 2008, he filled the basketball arena with 14,000 screaming supporters enthralled by his first presidential campaign, inspired by an energetic and youthful candidate’s vision of uniting red and blue America. On Wednesday, grayer and battered by Washington’s unrelenting partisan snarking, Obama settled for the smaller of the two venues, where the crowd fit, with room to spare, into a space that holds several thousand.
Six years on, Obama sought to deliver the same unifying message, choosing this reliably Republican state to launch a national tour promoting the middle-class and education proposals outlined in his sixth State of the Union address.
“I still believe what I said back then,” a relaxed and conversational Obama told an enthusiastic crowd made up mostly of students. “As Americans, we have more in common than not.”
“There is not a liberal America or a conservative America, but a United States of America,” said Obama, who bounded onstage with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and no jacket.
In his remarks, Obama lamented an America divided by ideology. He decried the segmentation of the media into conservative and liberal outlets. “Everybody’s only listening to what they already believe in,” Obama said from a podium set near midfield on the hash-marked artificial grass.
While criticizing partisan divides, Obama also frequently skewered and belittled his Republican opponents. In a jab that drew loud laughter, he told the audience that he knows Republicans disagree with him because, “I can see that from their body language.” He also took more pointed jabs, accusing Republicans of “pretending” that child care and student debt are “not important,” and accusing the GOP of refusing to believe that “there’s a lot we can do” to improve the lives of middle-class Americans.
Obama’s speech Wednesday was delivered in a city planted at the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills. The training facility where the event was held is on a street named for a liberal icon, the Latino labor organizer Cesar Chavez. In the audience, a man yelled “Sí, se puede”—“Yes, we can” in Spanish.
Obama said he hoped to pay for his middle-class initiatives by closing tax loopholes for corporations and for the wealthy and said the government should be investing in training to improve job skills. He challenged Republicans to come up with alternatives rather than criticizing his funding plans.
Obama’s remarks were interrupted repeatedly by loud cheers, turning the event into something of a pep rally — not only for his current trip but for what he hinted is to come in what he described as “the fourth quarter” of his presidency.
“Big things happen in the fourth quarter,” he said.
Extending an invitation to Republicans is a big part of the motivation for Obama’s choice of venue, even in a state such as Idaho, where Obama told the crowd he “got whupped” in the past two presidential elections.
“He wants to hit some of these red states. He wants to reach out to everybody,” a White House official said in a background briefing this week. Yet Republicans in this state, which voted overwhelmingly for Obama’s opponents in 2008 and 2012, weren’t sounding particularly interested in any group hugs with the man who has been a popular target of their candidates.
“To simply fly in to use our university and our students as a prop in his permanent public relations campaign, well, that’s not leadership or respect. Just opportunism,” Steve Yates, chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, said in a Facebook posting. “Our state and nation deserve better.”
A smattering of protesters showed up to voice some of the more familiar complaints about Obama’s recent actions, such as his use of executive orders to defer deportation of some immigrants and his restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba. “There’s a lot of people here illegally using services. Our money gets puts to use by people that aren’t American,” said Joel Baldridge, a 46-year-old unemployed motorcycle mechanic who stood on a street corner in a camouflage coat waving a sign urging Obama’s arrest, impeachment and prosecution.
Dozens more appeared outside the training facility to demand that the administration take action in the case of Saeed Abedini, an Iranian American pastor from Boise whose family says has been imprisoned in Iran for establishing Christian churches in private homes. Obama met with Abedini’s wife before his speech Wednesday.
Free tickets to the Wednesday event were scooped up quickly when they were distributed earlier in the week. And by Wednesday, some people were offering to sell their tickets on Craigslist for $150 to $200.
Still, it was not quite the outpouring of enthusiasm seen in 2008, when Obama supporters lined up for hours in 20-degree cold to hear him speak and additional space was cleared for the audience at the last minute to accommodate an overflow crowd. On that day, Cecil Andrus, a Democrat and four-time Idaho governor, compared Obama to President John F. Kennedy.
Obama, speaking just four days before the Super Tuesday primaries, also reached back to the 1960s for rhetorical inspiration, telling the crowd he was inspired by what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.”
“We cannot wait,” he said.
Six years later, though, Obama has had to learn the rites of waiting as he has struggled to work with Republicans in Congress who have stalled or blocked many of his legislative initiatives. Andrus, interior secretary in the Jimmy Carter administration, blamed Obama’s difficulties with Republicans, in part, on race.
“The biggest problem they have with him is the color of his skin,” Andrus said in an interview before Obama’s appearance. “The venom from some of the Southern states — we don’t like to admit it, but we have a segment in our society in America where racism is still alive. In my opinion — again, there are people who will strongly disagree — but when they look in the mirror, they know it’s true.”
Obama’s visit to Idaho was his first as president, leaving only three states that he has not visited since his election — South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah. Two of Obama’s predecessors — George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — got to all 50 states as president. George W. Bush made it to 49 but skipped Vermont.
The Democratic Party in South Carolina — another Republican stronghold — tweeted hopefully this week that Obama was saving “the best for last.” But when his speech in Boise ended, Air Force One lifted off for Kansas. South Carolina Democrats will have to wait.
Juliet Eilperin, Katie Zezima and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.