Friday, April 19, 2019 -
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Obama woos the faithful, signs big bill in Denver

President Barack ObamaDenver’s Museum of Nature and Science was a very stimulating place on Tuesday.

Stimulating — as in awestruck, enthusiastic, anticipatory, hopeful — and nervous.

And, of course, as in stimulus.

President Barack Obama, returning to Denver for the first time since his party’s coronation last summer at the Democratic National Convention, signed into law a $787 billion stimulus bill which he hopes will jumpstart America’s staggering economy.

With a businesslike “There you go. It’s done” and a flourish of his pen, Obama put the finishing touch on the first major challenge of his new administration — a significant, perhaps even historic victory, even if very narrowly won.

Beneath the gaze of Vice President Joe Biden, former Colorado senator and now Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and a host of other local luminaries, the president looked at the crowd and smiled widely.

The audience of several hundred, composed mostly of people involved in Colorado alternative energy businesses and projects — a prime focus of the stimulus package — applauded with vigor.

A virtual battalion of local and national media, armed with an imposing array of gadgets and technologies, filmed, shuttered, recorded and scribbled, underscoring the national and international importance of what was transpiring.

Hovering at the perimeters of the audience and press section squeezed into the tightly secured, meticulously cordoned, virtual lockdown of the museum, a cadre of Secret Service agents carefully watched everyone while quietly muttering into their mouthpieces.

All in all, quite a scene — an “auspicious occasion” as such events are often called — and one that’s not likely, for better or worse, to be soon forgotten.

In a characteristically clear and forceful address before signing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Obama made it clear that it was an event and a day designed for all Americans, even the many conservatives who oppose it on the grounds of its unprecedented levels of spending.

While he enthusiastically touted its provisions for job growth, tax breaks, financial aid for state governments and government aid to the poor and laid off workers, the president did not attempt to soft sell the package, nor the economic hardships still ahead.

“Our American story is not — and never has been — about things coming easy,” Obama said.

“It’s about rising to the moment when the moment is hard, converting crisis into opportunity, and seeing to it that we emerge from whatever trials we face stronger than we were before.”

In that spirit, Tuesday’s ceremonies began with something stirring — the national anthem sung passionately and beautifully by Denver singer Sheryl Renee Lynch — and something inspirational — an invocation delivered by Denver Rabbi Joel Schwartzman.

Rabbi Schwartzman, spiritual leader of B’nai Chaim in Morrison and a former Air Force chaplain, delivered a prayer that struck many of the same notes the president sounded a few minutes later.

Of Americans, the rabbi said: “Long known as people who, when asked to give of ourselves, have come forward with gifts that have astounded and amazed, whose creativity and ingenuity have, time and gain, brought betterment of the common good; we beseech You, once again, to imbue us with the confidence that there is no challenge too great that we, united together as the American people, cannot overcome it.”

Earlier, during the long wait before the president’s arrival at the museum, Rabbi Schwartzman told the Intermountain Jewish News that his prayer had one central theme: “Confidence.”

“It is to say that the American people have seen hard times before and we’ve always exercised the capability of overcoming, innovating ourselves, picking our way through and coming to better times,” he said.

“I want to leave the entire group here today with the idea that we’ve got to hold our heads up and get down to work; that we can overcome the present circumstances that we’re facing.”

Defining himself as liberal on social issues and hawkish on international issues, especially Israel, Rabbi Schwartzman said he strove to write a prayer that would transcend the partisan battle lines around the stimulus bill. He said he is only too aware how many Americans staunchly oppose it.

“I’m doing prayer,” he said, “and prayers are not political.

“I’m praying for the country and if people want to read into a prayer what they want to read in, really and truly I think it’s their problem. They’re coming from their perspective. They have the right to do it, but I’m praying for the American people. They can take it from that point of view.”

The prayer, the rabbi acknowledged, was “an important gig” for himself, but more important, “it’s a Jewish honor.”

His selection came about, Rabbi Schwartzman said, because he sits on Mayor Hickenlooper’s clergy council and on Road Home, Denver’s effort to end homelessness within a decade.

A rabbi was chosen over a minister or priest, he speculated, because it would obviate any concerns over particular Christian denominations.

“I can only surmise that if you have a rabbi who’s going to give the prayer, you’re not going to step on different denominational toes.”

The rabbi (who once before prayed at a presidential event at Arlington National Cemetery during President Bill Clinton’s term) turned humorous for a moment, recalling how he found out that he had been given the rare honor to give an invocation for a presidential speech.

“The call came in on Shabbat, of all things, from Sue Cobb, the mayor’s assistant for these kinds of events.

“She said to me, ‘The mayor has nominated you for the White House. You’ll be hearing from them shortly. Can you do this?’

“And honest to G-d, I said, ‘I have a meeting with my accountant. I don’t know if I can do it.’

“I get off the phone. My wife said, ‘Are  you out of your mind?’”

Duly chastened, the rabbi quickly called back and accepted the invitation.

As to the fate of Obama’s ambitious move to stabilize the economy, Rabbi Schwartzman admitted that he really has no idea whether the measures will work.

“I understand there are people who don’t agree with all parts of the stimulus package,” he said. “I’m not enough of an economic expert to judge whether this will be better or different. But I can pray that it works. We’re in bad times, but we could be headed for much worse.”

The rabbi urged all Americans to regard the effort from a hopeful perspective.

“We are the greatest innovative country in the world,” he said. “Let’s look for this to succeed, let’s open up to creativity in this country. It is time to begin.”

With all the applause stilled, all the prayers recited and all the papers signed, the president and vice-president waved to the crowd and made a hasty exit, already preparing to head for Phoenix, where they would continue stumping for the stimulus package just signed.

Outside the museum, it was a typically stunning Colorado day, with brilliant sunshine and a panoramic view of the Front Range to the west. But a powerful wind was roaring down from those mountains, buffeting the suits of the Secret Service agents and fluttering the flags on the waiting motorcade.

The winds of change? Only time will tell.

Read the related blog entry, “Denver, once again”, on Rocky Mountain Jew.

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

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