Obama’s stealth visit to Seattle


Mount Rainier is seen from Air Force One with US President Barack Obama aboard as he travels from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington.


Saul Loeb

SEATTLE, Wash. — Traveling from east to west in Washington State is as much a revolution of mind as of geography.

The physical alterations are dramatic as the traveler heads toward the Pacific: off in the distance, Mt. Rainier rears up on the horizon, its broad white shoulders providing a soothing contrast to the dry and dusty hillsides of the east. By Snoqualmie Pass, the transformation is complete: fir-covered mountains replacing orchards and vineyards, green edging out brown, cool breezes blowing away hot winds.

Just as apparent are the shifts in the political landscape. Seattle is home to Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing and Starbucks, spawning a wealthy and largely liberal population that has little in common with the conservative farmers of the eastern territories.

It is the moneyed technocrats whom President Barack Obama has come to court. As his challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, sets off on his first foreign tour as the Republican heir apparent, Obama is intent on bridging the money gap between the two candidates.

Romney has been outshining the president in campaign contributions, sending alarm bells ringing in the Democratic camp. Obama is going to try and tap some reserves, in a series of fundraisers in tony Bellevue, a lush suburb of Seattle.

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Local radio stations were advertising the trip, and warning of possible traffic snarls as the presidential motorcade moves through the eastern suburbs to Bellevue. But the citizens of Seattle were not paying attention.

“He’s not coming here,” said the barista in Irwin’s, a neighborhood coffee shop. “Seattle is just a poor cousin to Bellevue.”

Most Seattle residents were not even aware of the proposed visit. The Obama campaign was playing it pretty close to the vest, with little information dribbling out.

“I have not heard anything,” said Saleh, a taxi driver originally from Eritrea, who has been in the United States for most of the past 30 years. When asked how he felt about the president, he shook his head angrily.

“He has done nothing for us,” he said. “He does not care about the ordinary people.”

Saleh’s daughter had recently graduated college with a degree in global health, he said, but was unable to find a job.

“I tell her to go get her master’s degree, but she says it’s not any better then, either,” he says. “She is back living at home with us.”

Saleh is not wild about Romney, either.

“I supported Obama in 2008, but this year I am just not going to vote,” he said.

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Saleh’s disaffection is worrying for Democrats like Deb Kumar, a Bellevue resident whose husband works at Boeing.

“If African-Americans stay home in November, Obama could be in trouble,” she said. “They are frustrated, and rightly so. The president has done little for them. They may think ‘why bother?’”

Even living out in Bellevue, Kumar has not heard much about the Obama visit.

“He is doing major fundraisers,” she laughed. “That is not me.”

Kumar moved to Bellevue 12 years ago. At the time, she was one of the few liberals in a pretty conservative area, she said. But in the intervening years, the neighborhood has caught up.

“I don’t feel like an outsider any more,” she said.

Obama met with more than 200 well-heeled supporters, each of whom paid $5,000 for the privilege of being in the same room as the president. In addition, he held a roundtable for about two dozen business leaders, who contributed more than $35,000 apiece. According to the media, his visit netted him more than $1.75 million.

The president did not hold any public events, perhaps sanguine about his chances in this liberal technological powerhouse. Political experts classify Washington as “likely Obama” thanks mostly to Seattle, which contains about 60 percent of the state’s population.

Washington has voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1988, and currently boasts a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators, all women.

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But there is always the possibility that 2012 could break the streak.

“There are a lot of people who are unhappy with Obama, and who do not care who the alternative is,” said Kumar. “I think a large portion of the electorate is not well informed. Obama has had some remarkable accomplishments, and there has been a lot of positive change. I will vote to re-elect Obama. But there are many voters who are not interested in the messaging. They see the attack ads and are turned off. Who knows how they will vote?”

Kumar stops and sighs.

“In 2008 we opened champagne when Obama won,” she recalled. “All of our neighbors celebrated and partied. I don’t know what to do. Should I keep that bottle of champagne in the refrigerator, just in case?”