Government Relations Director Michael Mancini Reflects on Seeing President

By Helen Edelman, manager, Exchange

September 24, 2013

Michael Mancini, Government Relations DirectorDirector of Government Relations Michael Mancini was in the audience Thursday, Aug. 22, when President Barack Obama addressed a small crowd at Henninger High School in Syracuse. These are his thoughts.

“The line was long, but the mood was upbeat. On a normal humid New York summer’s day, I, along with a throng of other excited people, waited to have the opportunity to see President Obama speak at Henninger High School in Syracuse. (At right, Michael Mancini.)

"In front of me was a Henninger high schooler, who was one of the lucky 40 students who got a ticket. He was with his mother, whose other son was inside already. I imagine she has had fewer days where she was prouder. Behind me were upward of 30 high school students who are part of the Hillside program. This program helps at-risk youth prepare for college and careers. Many are from underrepresented groups. (Read more about President Obama's plans to make college more accessible and affordable.) Read more about which students, faculty and administrators attended the events in Buffalo and Syracuse.

"What I wondered was whether they understood the enormity of the moment they were heading into. My guess is ‘yes’, somewhere beneath their teenage veneer. And it struck me that at its best, a visit from a sitting president can be a life-altering moment for young people, particularly for this president and for youth who look at him with a renewed sense of hope for the future.

"After going through a far less probing security check then I had expected, I was ushered into the gym and pointed to the next available spot on the bleachers. (As I sat, I started to wonder if, as a high school student, I had a less developed sense of personal space.)

President Barrack Obama on Stage at Syracuse Event"For about an hour, an amazing high school jazz band played to hoots and hollers. Then, an advance team member came out and put the presidential seal on the podium and the crowd erupted. Then, from behind the blue curtain emerged a tall man in a suit which was met with cheers, albeit brief, since it was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. I was star-struck, but I think I was alone. After the secretary talked briefly about the president’s plan to bring down costs in higher education, he introduced Emilio Ortiz, a Syracuse high school student. Ortiz was noticeably nervous, but after about a minute fell nicely into his cadence. He talked about his parents, who were in the audience, and how they instilled in him the importance of education. I could only imagine how it must have felt for them to look up at their son who was about to introduce the president of the United States. And before I knew it, he did. Out came President Obama in Dockers and a blue denim shirt. The crowd met his entrance with cheers. (Left, Mancini was not very far away from President Barack Obama when he snapped this photograph of the president emerging onstage.)

"As if in church, none of us knew when to sit, but after a bit he prompted, 'Those who can sit, sit; those who don’t have seats, don't sit, ‘cause then you will just fall.'

"For the next 20 minutes, save for a momentary heckler, the crowd listened to him with bated breath. Photos were snapped, Facebook statuses were updated, Instagram photos were filtered and tweets were sent into the ether.

"He talked about his plan to reduce college cost, which, in its longer version under the heading of innovation mentions, as a model, is Open SUNY. Other points were to help borrowers pay back loans with an income-based repayment program and incentive programs for colleges that bring down costs. His speech was peppered with the normal refrain of the need to bring more people into the middle class and the woes of working with a stubborn congress.

"At the end of his speech, he invoked memories of his campaign speeches, asking for our engagement and noting that the road ahead will not be easy, but together we can get there.

"He then worked the front row, looking up and waving at us who were beyond his reach. And just as quickly as he came in, he was gone.

"It really is an indescribable moment to be able to see a sitting president speak."

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