Bluefield Daily Telegraph
It was the first week of May in the year 2008, and a bitter fight to the finish was underway for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. Hillary Clinton was far behind in the all-important delegate count, and most political experts had already written off her campaign. But the Clinton campaign pushed on, hoping to deliver a bruising black eye in the Mountain State to the surging campaign of then-candidate Barack Obama. Hillary dispatched her husband and former President Bill Clinton to the campus of Concord University in Athens.
It was a rare visit to our region by a former president. In fact, the last time a former president visited the region was when George H.W. Bush stumped at the Brushfork Armory in 2002 for his son George W. Bush, who was then campaigning for the nation’s top office. I missed out on the chance to see Bush in 2002, but was asked to cover Clinton’s visit to Concord. It was an opportunity I jumped at.
By the time I arrived at the Campus Beautiful, there was already a long line of people waiting to see the former president. As representatives of the media, we were allowed inside of the gymnasium area in advance of the crowd waiting outside, and we were briefed on what we could, and couldn’t do, as it related to coverage of the former president. For example, on this particular night, there was not going to be any one-on-one interviews with Bill Clinton. But we were afforded near front-row seats. And the former president gave a dynamic speech. He came across as the same charismatic and personable politician in person as he does on television. A good time was had by all in attendance. Hillary Clinton went on to deliver a defeat to Obama in West Virginia. A few weeks later, she conceded defeat, and withdrew from the race. But the Democratic primary would mark the first of three elections where the Mountain State would rebuff Obama.
Flash forward to late July of 2009. The great feeling of optimism and hope that preceded the election of President Barack Obama had all but vanished. America was deep into the grip of the Great Recession. People were still hurting. Millions had lost their jobs, and a sense of hope for the future. But Obama was busy talking about universal health care. Most agreed the president, and his administration, should have been focused on job creation instead during this dark time for America. But that wasn’t the case. Obama announced he was heading to Southwest Virginia as part of a multi-state swing to promote the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009 — legislation that would go on to deeply divide the nation at the worse of possible times.
Once again, the assignment of covering the presidential visit fell upon me, and once again I jumped at the opportunity. The destination this time was a little unusual. It was a Kroger store in Southwest Virginia — an odd location to pitch a health care plan dubbed by critics as “Obamacare.” The mood and atmosphere was decidedly different from that jubilant crowd gathered at Concord University the prior year.
Protesters could be seen on the streets of downtown Bristol. Signs — many of an unwelcoming nature — were visible for the president to see. And the number of protesters gathered in the parking lot of the Kroger store was a lot larger. The event inside of the grocery store proved to be a carefully controlled setting — perhaps too controlled. Camera crews and reporters were stationed a far distance away from the president. Our staff photographer was, in fact, placed behind the bakery counter and I found myself being instructed to sit in front of the entrance to the public restroom area of all places. Other invited guests and about 100 employees and concerned citizens were provided up-close seating to the president. While the majority of Obama’s speech was devoted to why Congress had to adopt the new health care law, he did declare at the Southwest Virginia Kroger that the nation was beginning to see the end of the Great Recession. Yet the pain from this financial storm carried on well into 2010, 2011 and the 2012 presidential election year.
Flash forward to August of 2013. We are now two months away from the Oct. 1 implementation date of the Affordable Care Act. Soon folks without insurance will have to begin choosing plans from their respective state exchanges. Confusion regarding the new law is still relatively widespread.
In Virginia, the problem is further complicated by the fact that Gov. Bob McDonnell refused to participate in the new law. Thus, the federal government is setting up an exchange for the state. And we were told last week that individuals and business owners in Tazewell, Bland, Buchanan and Wythe counties could be limited to only one or two health care plans at best, based upon the preliminary state recommendations. Will the various affordable options once promised by the president on the campaign trail fail to materialize for our region?
Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.