GAMBIER — An institution closely identified in its first century with the Republican Party, Kenyon College has become regarded as Knox County’s liberal haven in its second century. But the mood of the supporters who crowded into Peirce Pub on Wednesday to listen to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address was initially fairly cool. Only a few die-hards in the pub applauded as the Democratic president made his way into the House of Representatives, as broadcast through the room by four television screens. Most appeared ready to wait and see what the president had to say.
The president’s upbeat tone was expected, but the crowd was caught by surprise at Obama’s frank, sometimes joking manner. The students soon caught the spirit of the speech, however, and began belly-laughing at camera shots of scowling political opponents. By the end of the address, the pub crowd seemed won over, applauding the speech vigorously and dispersing before the Republican rebuttal was under way.
Kenyon student Jon Green was surprised.
“It was a lot better than I thought it would be,” Green said, noting that he had expected the speech to dwell more upon the ongoing health care debate, which was only briefly touched on by the president.
Student Jessica Miller thought Obama did himself a lot of good with the address.
“He needed to be more loose, to humanize himself,” Miller said, “and I’m glad he did that.”
Political science professor David Rowe had anticipated that the president wouldn’t deliver the usual political cheerleading often seen in these addresses, but he was surprised how different it was.
“It’s the most interesting State of the Union I’ve ever listened to,” Rowe said. “He was actually pointing fingers instead of playing politics.”
Rowe said the speech was much more about government than he expected, with Obama taking Republicans and Democrats to task for gridlock and failure of leadership.
Obama’s comment about increasing Pell Grants for college students was warmly applauded, as was the president’s following barb that colleges need to get serious about bringing down the cost of tuition. The two largest bursts of applause and cheering came when Obama reminded his fellow elected officials that they were all sent to Washington to serve their citizens, not their ambitions, and secondly — and loudest — when Obama said he would end the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of prohibiting gays and lesbians from serving in the armed forces.
Jeff Bergeson thought the speech was fantastic.
“I think he presented what can be a unifying vision,” the Kenyon student said, citing the African proverb Al Gore has quoted in relation to making progress on global warming: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”
Bergeson said things would get better quicker if the politicians would remember that.