Obama's Favorite County — At Least When It Comes To Giving Speeches

Apr 17, 2014
Originally published on April 18, 2014 1:11 am

Residents of Prince George's County, Md., might just get sick of hearing "Hail to the Chief." President Obama has visited this county to deliver policy addresses more than any other in his second term.

"Hello Maryland. It's good to see you," the president said enthusiastically in January at a Costco in Lanham, Md. "I love to get outside of the Beltway, even if it is just a few hundred feet away."

For many years, presidents have traveled to Prince George's County because it is the location of Joint Base Andrews, the home base of Air Force One. It also has a mighty nice golf course and is about 10 miles from the White House.

But these speeches are something else. Since taking office, Obama has spoken at 17 public events in Prince George's County, bringing new notice to a place that has struggled with public corruption, home foreclosures and crime.

To County Executive Rushern Baker, these visits are a sign things have begun to turn around.

"You know for the longest time we would say, 'The president spends more time in Prince George's County than any other place than the White House.' And that was usually him driving here to fly somewhere else," said Baker. "Now he's actually visiting, and the first lady."

From 2010 to 2013, crime overall dropped 27 percent with murders down 38 percent. When Baker took office in late 2010, his predecessor had just been taken away in handcuffs, later pleading guilty to extortion and witness tampering as part of a sweeping FBI investigation into corruption in the county. Now, Baker is pitching his county for the new FBI headquarters, and he hopes the president is listening.

"And we're hoping that the next visit he comes, he cuts the ribbon on the FBI," said Baker. "What better place to build it than here."

If Prince George's gets the project it would be a major milestone for a place that is now the nation's most affluent African-American majority county.

"It is the only place in America ... where the population went from majority white to majority African-American and education and income of the population went up," said Baker. "It's never happened in America before."

A Sense Of Belonging

That affluence was on display on a recent Friday evening in a strip mall in the town of Bowie. A group of men, mostly business owners, sat outside a fancy Chinese restaurant wearing golf shirts and smoking cigars.

"This county, the president can identify with," said Mack Jenkins, who owns a construction firm.

He has his own theory about why the president visits so often. It sends a message, he says, that there are people of color doing well, even if it doesn't always get a lot of attention.

"He can come and show the masses that, looky here, they don't talk about them much but guess what they're here, and they're doing OK," said Jenkins.

Like many in Prince George's County, Jenkins moved here decades ago because he saw it as a safe place to raise his growing family. His friend Steve Johnson grew up in neighboring Washington, D.C., but in the early 1990s moved out to the suburbs.

"That's what I can say about this county — I have a sense of belonging," said Johnson. "I belong here."

It could be the president feels much the same way. He did win the county in 2012, with 90 percent of the vote.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The president was in the White House today, but earlier this week, he paid a one-day visit to Pennsylvania making it home in time for dinner. Presidents commonly make such forays so that they're not always seen as speaking from Washington D.C. For this president, trips have often involved a particular county just outside the nation's capital in Maryland. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith tells us why.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Just about once a month, President Obama and his team choose Prince George's County, Maryland, as a backdrop.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hello, Maryland. It's good to see you. I love being on that side of the Beltway, even if it's just a few hundred feet away.

KEITH: He made a push for raising the minimum wage at a Costco in Lanham, Maryland, talked about fuel standards for trucks in Upper Marlboro.

OBAMA: Well, good morning, everybody. It is good to be here.

KEITH: Announced education grants at Bladensburg High School.

OBAMA: Hello, Mustangs.

KEITH: And talked about classroom technology at a middle school.

OBAMA: Hello, everybody.

KEITH: For many years, presidents have traveled to Prince George's County because it is the location of joint-based Andrews, the home base of Air Force One. It also has a mighty nice golf course. But these speeches are something else. Obama has spoken at 17 public events in Prince George's, visiting it for policy addresses more than any other county in his second term, and bringing new notice to a place that has struggled with public corruption, home foreclosures and crime.

To PG County executive Rushern Baker these visits are a sign things have begun to turn around.

RUSHERN BAKER: You know, for the longest, we would say presidents spend more time in Prince George's County than any other place other than the White House and that was usually him driving here to fly somewhere else. Now he's actually visiting, and the first lady.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We're getting new information just in about a drop in crime in Prince George's County.

KEITH: From 2010 to 2013, crime overall dropped 27 percent with murders down 38 percent. When Baker took office in late 2010, his predecessor had just been taken away in handcuffs, later pleading guilty to extortion and witness tampering as part of a sweeping FBI investigation into corruption in the county. Now Baker is pitching his county for the new FBI headquarters and he hopes the president is listening.

BAKER: And we're hoping that the next visit he comes, he cuts the ribbon on the FBI. What better place to build it than here? Did I say FBI a couple of times and build it here?

KEITH: Yes, yes, he did. If Prince George's gets the project, it would be a major milestone for a place that is now the nation's most affluent African-American majority county. Again, Rushern Baker.

BAKER: It is the only place in America - and I learned this when I moved to Prince George's County - where the population went from majority white to majority African-American and education and income of the population went up. It's never happened in America before.

KEITH: That affluence was on display on a recent Friday evening in a strip mall in the town of Buoy. A group of men, mostly business owners, sat outside of a fancy Chinese restaurant wearing golf shirts and smoking cigars.

MACK JENKINS: This county, the president can identify with...

KEITH: Mack Jenkins(ph) owns a construction firm and he has his own theory about why the president visits so often.

JENKINS: I think he sends a message that there are people of color that's doing well, that's not always in the media. And I think that's the point he's trying to make, that he can come and show the masses that, looky here, they don't talk about them much, but guess what. They're here and they're doing OK.

KEITH: Like many in Prince George's County, Jenkins moved here decades ago because he saw it as a safe place to raise his growing family. His friend Steve Johnson(ph) grew up in neighboring Washington D.C., but in the early '90s moved out to the suburbs.

STEVE JOHNSON: That's what I can say about this county, I have a sense of belonging here. I belong here.

KEITH: It could be the president feels much the same way. He did win the county in 2012, with 90 percent of the vote.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.