As he walked the rope line after his triumphant speech at the St. Patrick’s party at the White House on Tuesday night, President Obama seemed more animated than he had ever been at this event.
“Beat Romney,” someone shouted on the ropeline. Obama turned back with both thumbs up and said, “We will, we will.”
It was a combative moment from a president who is clearly in full re-election mode, and hoping the Irish can help him.
In his speech, the biggest applause line was when Obama accepted a certificate of Irish heritage and joked that he would hang it beside his birth certificate, which has been the focus of so much controversy for him.
Obama’s speech was far more political than in previous years, reflecting the upcoming election and the fact that it now seems certain Mitt Romney will be his GOP opponent.
Obama referenced all the Irish touchstones – President Kennedy and his visit to Ireland 50 years ago next year was high on his list and he cleverly worked in his own trip there in 2011.
Obama quoted Kennedy in his remarks. “’It is strange,’ President Kennedy said on his last day in Ireland, ‘that so many years and so many generations pass, and still some of us who come on this trip could feel ourselves among neighbors, even though we are separated by generations, by time and by thousands of miles.’
“I know most of you can relate to that. I think anyone who’s had a chance to visit can relate. And that’s why Jackie Kennedy later visited Ireland with her children and gave one of President Kennedy’s dog tags to his cousins in Dunganstown. And that’s why I felt so at home when I visited Moneygall.”
Comparing himself to Kennedy and putting himself clearly in the frame as a president with Irish roots was a very deliberate tactic by Obama on Tuesday night.
So too was the comparison to the successful struggle of Irish emigrants who made it in America, and the current hard times that they face.
In both cases, Obama chose to use the word “we” when speaking of those Irish and of present day events.
“But we choose to rise to these times for the same reason we rose to those tougher times -- because we are all proud peoples who share more than sprawling family trees,” Obama said.
“We are peoples who share an unshakeable faith, an unbending commitment to our fellow man, and a resilient and audacious hope. And that’s why I say of Ireland tonight what I said in Dublin last May, this little country that inspires the biggest things -- its best days are still ahead.”
Obama’s speech reflected the reality that his reelection campaign is taking nothing for granted, despite opinion polls showing him ahead of Romney.
The large crowd who attended the party in the East Room of the White House reflected that reality, too. It was significant that many of those present were not Irish, but rather were key supporters from important states around the country.
Every second person I met seemed to come from Ohio or Pennsylvania or Indiana, three of the key states Obama is hoping to win in November.
It is clear too that Obama is very much at peace with the Irish, that the ecstatic reception he got in Ireland last year has played a significant role in his attitudes towards the Irish.
Obama’s Irish cousin Henry Healy described a unique situation on Tuesday as he and fellow Moneygall man Ollie Hayes were being ushered into the White House for the reception.
Coincidentally, Obama emerged from a meeting and spotted the two men. He called over for them to join him, and ushered them into a nearby room where they spoke for 10 minutes about his hopes to visit Moneygall again, and Ireland generally.
There is no question that this president has decided that what looked like the tenuous badge of Irishness that was foisted on him some years ago is something he can actually benefit from.
But there is also, it seems, a place in his heart for the Irish. Looking at First Lady Michelle Obama, dressed in a lovely green dress and clearly enjoying the company of Irish Prime Minister Enda
Kenny and his wife Fionnuala, and watching the president stand far longer on the rope line than previous years, it is clear he is at ease.
There is no guarantee next March that there will be another four years of Obama. But clearly, he believes that having the Irish on his side in November can work well for him too.
As he said in his closing remarks to the guests, “As long as I am president, you will have a strong friend, a steadfast ally, and a faithful partner...”.
The loud ovation he received showed there are many Irish who wish for nothing less than that either.
Here's the White House's footage from the day:
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