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President Obama speaks to the nation, and to Northwestern

President Barack Obama delivered a major address on the economy at Northwestern University today, speaking to the entire nation and also to the members of the Northwestern community gathered right in front of him for the historic occasion.

He chose to deliver the economic news at Northwestern’s Cahn Auditorium on the Evanston campus — and particularly to students, faculty and staff of the University’s Kellogg School of Management, which is known globally for its innovative education of global business leaders.

“There’s a reason I came to a business school instead of a school of government,” the president said. “I believe that capitalism is the greatest force for prosperity and opportunity the world has ever known. I believe that private enterprise — not government, but the innovators and risk-takers and makers and doers — should be the driving force of job creation."

President Obama emphasized his administration’s role in helping the nation dig out of the Great Recession — one of the nation’s worst economic downturns — stressing that it is America’s economic strength that fuels America’s leadership on the global stage during such an uncertain time in the world.

Filled with a number of light notes, the speech included many references to Northwestern, and the crowd couldn't have been more receptive, responding with many moments of laughter and applause.

Shaping America’s economy

Addressing students in the audience a number of times, the president said, “That’s why I’m here — because it is young people like you, and universities like this, that will shape America’s economy and set the conditions for middle-class growth in the 21st century.”

He emphasized his administration’s success in bringing back the economy from an unprecedented downturn. At the same time, the president stressed that much more needs to be done to ensure that the benefits of growth are shared more broadly with the middle class and all who hope to join it.

With Northwestern journalism students and a host of national and local reporters covering the event, Northwestern President Morton Schapiro welcomed the president of the United States.

President Schapiro greeted the audience of nearly 1,000 people packed into Cahn Auditorium just before President Obama's speech and welcomed the many dignitaries to the Evanston campus, noting, "Northwestern University and Kellogg School of Management are exceptionally proud to welcome our nation's president."

The audience of invited guests included a multitude of deans, senior staff and students from Kellogg and other Northwestern schools as well as senior White House staff and many Chicago-area leaders and Democratic politicians. They included U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and U.S. representatives Jan Schakowsky, Michael Quigley, Danny Davis, Robin Kelly and Brad Schneider.

Zach Frisbie, a Kellogg student, former U.S. Army officer and president of the Kellogg Veterans Association, led the Pledge of Allegiance.

Ethan Simpson, a graduate student at Northwestern’s world-renowned Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He had only been officially recruited to perform the anthem by Bienen Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery the day before. While warming up in a practice room in the music building yesterday afternoon, Simpson said, emphatically, that he had no intention of looking up the infamous bloopers that demonstrate how terribly wrong public performances of the national anthem can go.

“I’m not going to mess up,” he said, almost to himself, before delivering a stunning operatic rendition of the national anthem in practice that he repeated today.

Shout out to Kellogg

With his many references to Kellogg, it was clear why President Obama chose to deliver his national address at Northwestern. He especially paid tribute to Kellogg Dean Sally Blount in stressing that the nation needs to do a much better job in addressing gender inequity in the workplace.

“Let’s get rid of the barriers that keep more moms who want to work from entering the workforce,” he said. “Let’s do what Dean Blount here at Kellogg has been working with us on at the White House — let’s help business and political leaders who recognize that flexibility in the workplace and paid maternity leave are good for business. 

“Let’s offer that deal to new fathers, too, and make sure work pays for parents raising young kids. California adopted paid leave, which boosted work and earnings for moms with young kids. Let’s follow their lead and make our economy stronger."

Innovative science

President Obama made a number of references to the scientific innovations that occur at a place like Northwestern and fuel the nation’s prosperity.

“If we want to make and sell the best products, we have to invest in the best ideas, like you do here at Northwestern,” he said. “Your nanotechnology institute doesn’t just conduct groundbreaking research; that research has spun off 20 startups and more than 1,800 products — that means jobs.

“And I know that here at Northwestern, your researchers are working to convert sunlight into liquid fuel — which sounds impossible, or at least really hard,” he added, sparking laughter from the audience. “But the good news is, if you need to get the hard or the impossible done, America and American universities are a pretty good place to start.”

The excitement of being caught up in such a historic moment was reflected throughout the Evanston campus. By the time the news was officially announced Tuesday morning, phones and email boxes were flooded with desperate requests for tickets to the presidential address. 

The speech was live-streamed on the Web, and students from Northwestern around the world, along with global alumni, watched the address near and far. Many who were unable to snag a coveted ticket to the speech gathered in a number of viewing rooms that were set up on the Evanston campus. Members of Northwestern University in Qatar, too, gathered for the speech that was delivered nine hours ahead in Doha.

McCormick Auditorium, a 300-seat lecture hall and theater at the Norris University Center, the hub of campus life, was one viewing site. The students cheered enthusiastically each time Obama referenced Evanston and the University. “Barack Obama saying 'Go Cats!' is now my ringtone,” Jason Chang tweeted.

“His speech was great; I never realized how sassy he could be,” said Axel Boada, a sophomore at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “He was throwing shots at Moscow and Beijing, but that’s part of what I liked. It gave me a sense of pride in the USA.

“I also appreciated that he recognized that while the economy is improving on the macro level, people are still struggling,” Boada added.

For Diana Shalda, a high school teacher at the Chicago Military Academy-Bronzeville, the historic opportunity to see Obama was a chance to see politics in action and to introduce her students to an elite university. Shalda received six tickets through Chicago’s Mikvah Challenge Foundation, a nonprofit that works to develop and engage young civic leaders.

“My goal is to have my students exposed to the caliber of those who attend Northwestern,” she said. “That’s who they’re in competition with.”

Prior to the speech, Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Barack Obama, did interviews with television stations in the auditorium, and two Northwestern students, thrilled to have nabbed tickets, asked a bystander to photograph them holding their tickets in front of the stage set up with 10 American flags.

Presidential visits to Northwestern

The last time a sitting president visited Northwestern was in 1954 when then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower received an honorary doctor of laws degree and spoke at a special event that attracted more than 23,000 people. Before that, the last sitting president to visit the University was then-President Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1903 came here on a goodwill tour of the West as commander in chief.

President Obama referenced his commencement speech at Northwestern in 2006 when he was an Illinois senator. His message then — about the responsibility to help Americans who are less fortunate to ensure the greatness of our nation — was echoed in today’s speech.

Speaking to today’s audience, he said, “You are America’s future business leaders, and civic leaders, and in many ways, that makes you the stewards of America’s single greatest asset: our people.

“So as you engage in the pursuit of profit, as you should, I challenge you to do it with a sense of purpose,” he told them. “As you chase your own success, as we want you to do, I challenge you to cultivate ways to help more Americans chase theirs.

“It is the American people who have made the progress of the last six years possible. It is the American people who will make our future progress possible. And the story of America is a story of progress. However halting, however incomplete, however harshly challenged at each point on our journey — the story of America is a story of progress.”

Northwestern School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe summed up the speech: “He did an excellent job laying out a complex agenda in an intelligent and motivating way. He was very relaxed and engaging and did really well in responding to the crowd.”

A couple dozen key people from Northwestern and the city of Evanston staffed the command post for the large-scale event, overseeing security and logistics for President Obama’s visit. The Northwestern University Police Department, Evanston Police Department and Evanston Fire Department operated under unified command, and staff from key University departments were on hand.

“Just another day at the office,” said Dan McAleer, deputy chief of police at Northwestern, in the command post, as two Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and two Marine helicopters (one designated as “Marine One”) came into view over Lake Michigan and landed just south of Lakeside Field.

After President Obama’s speech, those in the command center quietly watched the motorcade progress down Sheridan Road and head back east to Lakeside Field. The president could be seen — at a distance — leaving his limo and walking back to Marine One. As the helicopters took off and headed south the room let out a collective sigh of relief.

“What an exciting event for the University,” McAleer said of the day. “All of the planning before today has really paid off, and things went very well. We’re definitely proud.”

Storer Rowley, Julie Deardorff, Marla Paul and Megan Fellman contributed to this story.