President Barack Obama acknowledged his absence from South Carolina since winning the state’s Democratic primary on Jan. 26, 2008, during his speech Friday.
“(I)t’s been too long,” the president told the crowd of 1,166 at Mays Arena at Benedict College. “I’m not going to lie. I love you, and I’ve been loving you. It’s just I’ve had a lot of stuff to do since I last saw you.”
Obama arrived at Benedict about 90 minutes ahead of his scheduled town-hall meeting. The president spent that time meeting with about 70 S.C. Democratic leaders and former campaign organizers.
The crowd included former Gov. Jim Hodges, former Democratic National Committee chairman Don Fowler, former S.C. Democratic chairs Carol Fowler and Dick Harpootlian, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford of Columbia and former State Rep. Bakari Sellers of Bamberg. Obama chatted and had photos taken with them.
The meeting was a reunion of sorts among Democrats who helped propel Obama's 2008 primary win in South Carolina. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who came on the trip on Friday, was part of that campaign.
Attorney General Eric Holder and Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson also flew to Columbia.
“(I)t was wonderful to be backstage because I got a chance to see so many of the wonderful people that I worked with back in 2008,” Obama said. “If it was not for this great state, the Palmetto State, if it was not for all the people who had, at a grassroots level, gone door-to-door and talked to folks, and got everybody fired up and ready to go if it hadn’t been for all of you, I might not be president.”
A hospitable crowd
Obama faced a friendly audience inside Mays Arena.
Participants from youth programs, including City Year and YouthBuild, sat in front of the stage, while rows of Benedict students were lined behind the president.
Students Andrew Drayton, Damian Farmer, Edward Scott and Jamel Davis arrived by 7:30 a.m. "It's first-come, first-served," Drayton said. "We're going to be the 'first-served,' " Farmer said.
A VIP section to the president’s left included Democratic leaders who got some face time with Obama.
The VIPs included former Obama Administration executive and state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, Catawba Indian Nation Chief Bill Harris, and Anton Gunn and Rick Wade, who held jobs at cabinet agencies after working on Obama’s 2008 S.C. campaign.
S.C. Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison and Fran Person, a former aide to Vice President Joe Biden, attended the town-hall holding their infant children.
"There's a lot of energy and excitement here," Harrison said. "I don't care what the polls say, this president is well loved in this state."
Air Force One coming and going
An group of perhaps 75 had gathered at Columbia Metropolitan Airport to greet the president more than hour before Air Force One landed.
Obama was greeted at the airport by Gov. Nikki Haley, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat who helped arrange his visit. Clyburn received a hug from the president after he walked off Air Force One.
Obama then strode toward the guests, who cheered with phone cameras in the air, ready to snap photos.
Dressed in a hot pink jacket and flowered mittens, Zoe Tipping, the daughter of Columbia Allen Tipping, sat atop her father’s shoulders and grinned widely as she grasped hands with the president.
There was no crowd when Obama left the airport after his speech.
A Secret Service agent spoke into a wrist radio. “Renegade has departed,” he said, as Air Force One lifted off.
The motorcade blockade
The president was on the ground in Columbia for a little more than four hours Friday. But his visit had a huge impact on traffic around the metro area.
Obama’s motorcade halted traffic on two of Columbia’s busiest stretches of highway, I-26 and I-126, about noon and 3:30 p.m. Cars also were held back from crossing under any overpasses or traveling on overpasses that the motorcade crossed.
Along the motorcade route, mailboxes, traffic-light boxes and some parked cars near the roadside were marked with X’s in pink tape after passing safety checks.
The president’s motorcade attracted roadside crowds from the Columbia airport to Brookland Baptist Church to Benedict College. Most cheered and clapped. Others shot videos and photos of the line of cars and vans passing by.
After Obama arrived, a woman along S.C. 302 held a sign calling Obama, “Liar in Chief.”
On his way back to the airport, Obama received a kinder message from another woman on the same road. She waved a sign inviting the president for a beer.
Crowd gathers outside Benedict
About 300 people crowded sidewalks at Laurel and Harden streets when it became clear that was where the presidential motorcade would enter Benedict College.
They were rewarded when Obama pulled down the curtain in his limo and waved to them.
"I just saw Barack Obama!" Sean Player said over the phone to his father.
Player and Shanita D'Angelo waited two hours to see the president for a couple of seconds. "I just screamed and ran into the street," D'Angelo said. "It was worth the wait."
Meanwhile, customer traffic at businesses across Harden Street from Benedict was very slow Friday.
Island Grill had no customers at 11:30 a.m. A block away, Barron's Outfitters manager Kent Parsons said he was "getting called every name in the book when we asked people to move their cars."
The parking spots in front of the store are for customers, but there was only one in the store, Parsons explained.
Friday usually is the store’s busiest day. Without the Obama visit, Parsons said, "We'd be a lot busier than this one gentleman we're trying to keep in the store at all costs."
Staff writers Andrew Shain, Jamie Self, Joey Holleman and Sarah Ellis contributed