Standing in the long, hot line to get into Gregory Gym to see President Obama, I met a fascinating young student. During the 2008 election, I remember the media interviewing some of Obama's friends and faculty from Harvard. Many said he was just one of those people who you knew was going somewhere, someone who was destined for big things. That exactly how I'd describe Ali Rawaf.
Rawaf is a senior at the University of Texas. He was born and raised in Baghdad, spending his last two years of high school in Tuscon before arriving in Austin to study government at UT. His parents are engineers and currently live in Syria. He blogs about Middle Eastern politics, energy and the environment, and is "a big Obama supporter, except when it comes to foreign policy."
He is not your typical college senior, and the refreshing conversation made the heat and long line bearable. Rawaf spoke to a nearby protester who carried the old Iraqi flag and obliviously said he was only there because a friend told him to hold the flag. The clueless protester was Lebanese and didn't seem particularly passionate about his position. Everything about that bothered Rawaf, who told me he hopes to work in politics and policy, perhaps attend law school and eventually return to Iraq to run for political office.
I think President Obama would have liked Rawaf's story. Like Rawaf, he used education to achieve great things and knew from a young age that he wanted to make a difference. His speech today focused on higher education, so my conversation with Rawaf set the tone perfectly.
Today's audience, which included the UT football team, Congressman Lloyd Doggett, Mayor Lee Leffingwell, State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, State Rep. Rafael Anchia, State Sen. Kirk Watson and a couple thousand others, greeted the President as if he were a rock star.
First, the President made a few jokes to show his understanding of the Austin and Longhorn spirit. He praised the football team and spoke of a February 2007 rally at Auditorium Shores where 20,000 people showed up in miserable weather to support him. Back then, he didn't think he had a chance of being elected, and said his win should be a reminder that, "all of us can reach for our dreams." He touched on health care and the Iraq War, but quickly moved on to the theme of his speech, that education is a vital component of economic recovery.
Obama said his goal is to have 8 million more college grads in the U.S. by 2020.
"Education is a prerequisite for prosperity," he said to booming applause.
The U.S. is now ranked 12th in the world for college grads -- plummeting from first place in just one generation. He talked about making college more affordable and said UT President Bill Powers was "working" on some ideas. I saw Powers a few rows down from me -- I'm sure his face turned red, and rightfully so.
The President got plenty of cheers when he talked about simplifying the financial aid process.
"You shouldn't have to have a Ph.D to fill out a financial aid form," he said.
"I loved that line," said David Kobierowski , co-founder of Texans for Obama and also an Austin Post contributor and KOOP radio host.
Obama also got a round of applause for his commitment to building up community colleges and historically Black Colleges and Universities, like Austin's Huston-Tillotson. He said that one-third of Americans and half of minority Americans don't earn a degree even after six years in college.
The audience maintained the rock concert excitement until the end, though the speech wasn't anything we haven't heard before.
We have to remember that Obama had one chief purpose today in Texas -- fundraising. But, his stop at UT energized Texas Democrats, and that is an essential part of getting ready for November, when Democratic incumbents face disillusioned voters.
Plus, a Democrat is trying hard to turn Texas blue again. Obama met with Governor Rick Perry today, but not Democratic challenger Bill White. It was a smart move for both, as Perry has been campaigning hard against Washington and painting White with the same brush. The distance was healthy.
I left the event feeling inspired -- not by the fairly predictable speech -- but by the people who surrounded me in that room. I saw local officials, activists and bloggers who are trying to make Austin better. I saw graduate student friends who will surely struggle when they finish their degrees, but nonetheless want to pursue journalism. I saw athletes that have made UT a national football icon. I saw a president is who not a rock star and far from perfect, but who I believe wants to leave the country a better place when he leaves the White House.