President Obama came to Boise Wednesday to deliver his first major speech following Tuesday night’s State of the Union address — and a student from Boise’s North Junior High School was a center of attention.
As part of an assignment during the previous school year, Bella Williams, now a seventh-grader, was asked to write a letter to her hero. Bella chose Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, writing that they probably wondered what life was like in Boise. Bella also invited Obama to learn to ski or snowboard with her.
Obama came to Idaho to deliver a 35-minute speech before a crowd of some 5,000 people crammed into Boise State University’s Caven-Williams Sports Complex.
On the issues, Obama touched on many of the same themes from his State of the Union address: a strong economy for the middle class, a proposal for free community college and a call to work together with the Republican-controlled Congress.
But at several points, Obama referenced Bella, her letter and her invitation to the ski slopes, which elicited a lighthearted response and lots of laughs from the audience.
“As somebody who was born in Hawaii where there’s not a lot of snow, let me put it this way, you do not want to see me ski,” Obama joked. “Or at least the Secret Service does not want to see me ski.”
The Obamas invited Bella to attend Wednesday’s speech. Others in attendance waited nearly the entire day to hear the president’s remarks. Because of the ways tickets were distributed – on relatively short notice Monday afternoon — many in the crowd were Boise State students or adults.
But the ticketing situation and the timing of Obama’s speech didn’t keep all students away.
Jacob Soriano, a fifth-grader at Pioneer School of the Arts, attended with his family. Jacob listened to Obama’s State of the Union address to prepare, and said he was very excited to hear a U.S. president speak in person for the first time.
He’d seen Obama on TV, but oftentimes the volume was low so his baby sister could sleep.
This, Jacob said, was the real deal.
“We’ve been waiting here for like three hours, almost four hours so I’m very excited,” Jacob said. “Oh my gosh, I’m going to have a new emotion if (Obama) comes in right now. I’m going to have a new emotion, I’m going to be really excited and I might even faint.”
During his brief Idaho visit, Obama also toured Boise State’s campus and met with students.
President Obama touched down at Boise’s Gowen Field at about 1:15 p.m.
Obama was greeted by Lt. Gov. Brad Little — who stood in for Gov. Butch Otter, who underwent hip replacement surgery Tuesday. Little said he briefly discussed two Idaho issues with the president after his arrival: Boise pastor Saeed Abedini, who is imprisoned in Iran; and the fate of Central Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds roadless area.
Obama met with Abedini’s wife during his Boise visit. Environmental groups have been lobbying for Obama to declare the Boulder-White Clouds a national monument, while Republican Rep. Mike Simpson has been working for more than a decade on a Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill.
Also accompanying Obama Wednesday: Dave Bieter. The Boise mayor flew with Obama from Washington, D.C., on Air Force One.
After shaking hands with Idaho National Guard members and their families, Obama left Gowen Field to tour BSU and deliver his speech.
Former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus and most of the Legislature’s Democratic lawmakers attended Obama’s speech. As a result, neither of the Senate Education Committee’s two Democrats (Sens. Cherie Buckner-Webb and Janie Ward-Engelking, both of Boise) attended the afternoon committee meeting at the Statehouse, which took place as scheduled.
At least two GOP lawmakers also witnessed Obama’s speech — Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, and Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot.
During Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, Obama listed affordable higher education as major policy priority. “We still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need,” he said. “That’s why I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.”
In Idaho, education and government leaders are seeking to increase the go-on rates for high school students. By 2020, the State Board of Education wants 60 percent of Idaho’s young adults to hold a degree or certificate.
Obama spoke at Boise State’s Taco Bell Arena as a candidate in 2008, but this marked his first visit to the state as president. It also marked the first presidential visit to the Gem State since President George W. Bush visited Idaho in 2005.
Obama left Boise late Wednesday afternoon. He will deliver a speech at the University of Kansas on Thursday.
Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Idaho Education News reporters are Boise State University employees.