President Barack Obama spent Wednesday in Virginia surrounded by people in uniform, turning up pressure on Republicans in Congress to pass key elements of his jobs bill.
In a red, white and blue appearance promoting jobs for military veterans, Obama got his share of green from proponents of national park status for parts of historic Fort Monroe.
In the afternoon, standing beside a chartreuse fire truck in a cramped suburban Richmond firehouse, he challenged Republicans to deny firefighters and police more funding when they vote on that part of his bill this week.
Active military personnel and veterans greeted the president's proposal to hire veterans warmly. Fort Monroe proponents were guarded in assessing the effectiveness of their lobbying message.
Hampton Mayor Molly Ward, who mobilized green-wearing park advocates, spent less than a minute talking privately with the president. She was “cautiously optimistic” the president would use the Antiquities Act to make more than half of Fort Monroe a national monument. It would be swifter than the full congressional route.
Fort Monroe's 565 acres were handed over to Virginia this year after the Army shifted operations to other bases under a major base realignment. The moated fort at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay is steeped in history: Robert E. Lee was stationed there before the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln visited during it and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned there after the war.
“It went very well,” Ward said in an interview after Obama's address at joint Base Langley-Eustis. “He was incredibly gracious. There was a lot of solidarity behind the issue.”
Ward was mindful, however, that the day was primarily aimed at jobs for veterans, even though she expressed hope the fort would get its “own monument.”
Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, wearing a green tie symbolic of the Fort Monroe effort, also met with Obama. He discussed the fort, jobs for veterans and asked anew for federal assistance for rural Louisa County, epicenter of a magnitude-5.8 earthquake that rocked the East Coast in August. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has refused to provide disaster aid to the hard-hit central Virginia county.
Fort Monroe is a special place for African-Americans because Union forces sheltered fugitive slaves, declaring them contraband of war. Some historians suggest that act was the beginning of the end of slavery.
Signs promoting national park status for Fort Monroe lined the streets of this military city of 140,000 and supporters wore green ribbons or ties.
Michelle Obama, who has taken on a national campaign to honor veterans, called it the largest coordinated effort by the private sector to hire veterans that the nation has seen in years.
W.A. Tucker of Hampton, 83 and a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, said veterans return home from service, can't find jobs and don't know what to do.
“A lot of people tell them they can have a job when they come back, but then the job isn't there. Then they can't find work,” Tucker said.
In Chesterfield County, Obama drew supportive ovations from an invited crowd of 164 people -- mostly local firefighters and government officials -- by stressing the need to assist city and county governments who have had to lay off firefighters as local taxes ebb and state appropriations are cut.
“A majority think it's a good idea to keep firefighters on the job,” Obama told the crowd jammed into the engine bays of Fire Station No. 9. “State and local governments have been very hard pressed and so they are cutting back on firefighters, police officers and teachers, and that is one of the biggest challenges we have, not only because ... these folks provide an extraordinary service for us but because they go to restaurants, and they go to hardware stores and they pay mortgages,” Obama said.
With his $447 billion jobs bill dead-ended by Senate Republicans last week, Obama said he will force Congress to take up key provisions of his legislation piece-by-piece, starting this week.
“They haven't met these firefighters. I don't think they want to tell them they're not going to be paid,” Obama said. Then he turned to face uniformed firefighters from Station No. 9 staged behind him and joked, ``Some of them are pretty big.”
It was Obama's second trip in as many months to push his American Jobs Act the Richmond area, home to Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
It was also the last stop of his three-day campaign-style tour of battleground southern states in next year's election.
Obama spoke for a little more than 15 minutes, this time without his trusty teleprompters. White House aides said it was the president's decision to forgo them, not the result of Tuesday's theft from a Richmond hotel parking lot of a cargo truck filled with equipment for Wednesday's event.