Obama's Fire Sale

Six weeks before the election, President Obama couldn’t fill the ballroom at the Roosevelt Hotel, despite cheap tickets on offer. And then he was met by hecklers.

09.23.10 7:28 AM ET

Who would have thought that six weeks before a cliffhanger election, President Obama would have to reach down to the D list to fill a room to listen to him? Most of us low rollers arrived early to see President Obama up close and personal. Our tickets for the general reception at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York were only $100. Some thought the email invitation was a joke. Some bought tickets for $50 from their desperate Democratic committeeman. Some bought the same day.

“It’s Filene’s,” enthused Sharon Douglas, reliving her heady days as a volunteer in Obama’s 2008 campaign. The doorman beckoned conspiratorially and ushered us out one door and in through another to stand at the back of the $500 line. Their crowd came from Wall Street in car services and killer heels. Our crowd came on subways in flats and scuffed teacher’s shoes.

Only after I received four email invitations and two personal calls imploring me to come did I call Speaker Pelosi’s office to check the admission price. “You mean, to be in the room with the President of the United States is now on fire sale for $100?” 


“How long do we get?”

“Half hour.”

“How many $100 givers have rsvp’d?” 

“Mmmm 250.” 

“Do we need to line up early to get in?”

“That’s not necessary. Everybody  will get in.” 

And everybody did—450 people in a room that holds 650.  Even Obama’s fire sale didn’t sell out.   

But the foot soldiers were a cheerful bunch.  We expected no stroking. We stood for two and a half hours munching on deli food and enjoying the open bar. I sat on the floor next to the 6-year-old black daughter of a Swedish law professor who drove down from Albany. We read The Wizard of Oz together, hoping for magic. Astrid Grahn-Farley wrote in her school notebook, “me and mommy wait long line for presdint obama.” 

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“We love you!” shouted one audience member when the president finally appeared and flashed his spotlight smile our way.

“I love you back!” he called. “That's why I'm here.”

This was a busy, challenging week for the president, with appearances at the Clinton Global Initiative and today at the U.N. General Assembly. “It's also nice just to stop by and see some friends,” he was saying, when two screeching hecklers next to us thrust sheets in the air painted with "KILL. No retreat. FUND AIDS.”  One was a surly blonde who had given her extra ticket to an unemployed gay man.

Supporters turned on the pair, shouting “Obama-Obama-Obama,” and the president intervened in his mediator mode:  "We heard your point. This young lady here, she wants increases in AIDS funding. That's great. We increased AIDS funding. She'd like more. I'm sure we could do more—if we're able to grow this economy again…”

When the hecklers grew more raucous, the president tried to ignore them. “In the last decade, we experienced the slowest job growth of any decade since World War II – “

“Don't ask, don't tell!” hollered the female heckler.

“The incomes of middle-class families –“

“Don't ask, don't tell!”

“…fell by almost 5 percent—“

“Don't ask, don't tell!”

“…fell by almost 5 percent –“

Our crowd tried to push the hecklers back.

“No, no, it's all right,” said the president, curbing the fury in the room. “We don't have to—it's OK.  You don't need to yell,” he reasoned with them. “Listen, my most urgent task as president was to prevent a second Depression.” (Applause.) “We've been through war and Depression and struggles for equal rights and civil rights. In each instance, we have made progress. Progress took time. Progress took sacrifice…”

There it was, the forgotten word: Sacrifice. That was the mantra of the Greatest Generation, buried under tens of thousands of American GIs whose families sacrificed their greatest treasure to fight for our ideals. The Bush mantra was Shop.

“Now, 19 months later…people are frustrated with the pace of change—and so am I,” the president confessed. “But I'm also here to tell you this: We cannot lose heart. We cannot give up.” (Applause.).

“These folks [Republicans] spent a decade driving our economy into a ditch. And so me and Nancy [Pelosi] and Bob [Menendez] and Chris [Van Holland], we all put on our boots and we went down into the ditch. It was muddy. It was hot. We're sweating. There are bugs. We're down there and we're pushing on this car. We're slippin’ and slidin,’ but we know we've got to get it up there.”

The crowd identified. We've been slippin' and slidin', too

“And the Republicans are standing on level ground and they're watching us. They're sipping on a Slurpee”  (laughter) “and they're saying, “You know, you're not pushing hard enough” …And every once in a while, we'd look up to them and say, “Do you guys want to help?” They said, “No, no—no, we can't.” 

Laughter built.

“And so finally, finally we get that car out of the ditch. Now, it's a little banged up… It needs a tune-up." (Laughter.) "It's not moving as fast as we wanted, but it's on level ground and we're ready to move forward. And suddenly we get a tap on the shoulder and we look back, and it's the Republicans.”(Laughter.) “They said, 'Excuse me, we want the keys back.' ”

Delicious anticipation. “You can't have the keys back. You don't know how to drive!” (Wild applause.)

Only after I received four email invitations and two personal calls imploring me to come did I call Speaker Pelosi’s office to check the admission price. “You mean, to be in the room with the President of the United States is now on fire sale for $100?” 

Later that night, another crowd had shelled out $15,000 to sit for dinner with the president.  Think that’s a lot?  It’s a 50 percent markdown from a recent invitation to dinner with the president at the home of Linda Douglass and John Phillips, costing $30,000.

This may be fallout from the way the Obama White House has treated their most generous donors since ’08, which is like rich uncles from the wrong side of the family.  Some big givers say they get zip in return. No special events. Forget about a seat in the presidential box at the Kennedy Center (which used to include Champagne and canapés.). 

The Clintons are still gracious to their supporters from 1992. Bill often takes whole delegations on his overseas speaking trips, including some former supporters. When the Hillary and Obama presidential campaigns merged in July 2008, members of Obama’s National Finance Committee were anxious to know how the Clintons held most of their loyal contributors from ’92 to 2008. The Clinton people divulged the secret of long-term loyalty—feed their brains as well as their egos, continually. It now appears the Clintons’ formula has been steadily ignored by the Obama team.

When bundlers suggest to the DNC that there ought to be some benefit for being a golden gifter—even a free White House briefing and a bagel for God sake—the DNC goes mute. If the Clintons gave them the Lincoln bedroom, Obama’s high rollers get shown to the White House gate.  If the Clinton givers got flights on Air Force One or Two, the only air gifts the Obama supporters get are air-mailed invitations with a scanning code. What big givers can expect, for sure, is the next call for another $30,000 ticket. No wonder many are played out.

Still, the Obama fundraisers must be doing something right, because the DNC has consistently outraised the RNC, taking in $10.9 million in August, according to The Washington Post.

And so the question is, how many Obama fire sales does it take to raise another record-shattering $770 million for 2012? 

Gail Sheehy is author of 15 bestselling books, including the revolutionary Passages and her latest book, Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos Into Confidence, published by HarperCollins.