Obama embraces ordinary voters in effort to escape bubble


AMERICA:Scott Van Duzer’s bear hug was a useful moment for a president keen to show he can relate to ordinary citizens’ concerns, writes LARA MARLOWE

IT WAS a curious ritual. A colossus of a man appeared on the upper tier of bleachers in the stadium where US president Barack Obama was about to speak in Florida earlier this week. The crowd cheered.

King Kong-like, the man proceeded to hug and pick up a woman who stood beside him. The crowd roared their approval.

The hulking figure was Scott “the Obama hugger” Van Duzer. The 42-year-old pizza shop owner is 6’3”, 265 pounds and can bench press 350lbs – about twice Obama’s weight.

Van Duzer was golfing last September 10th when he received a phone call from the White House.

The president was in the area and had heard of Van Duzer’s bike ride from Florida to Washington to raise awareness of the need for blood donations. Would it be all right if he dropped by Van Duzer’s Big Apple Pizzeria?

By the time Van Duzer got there, the secret service had removed all the cutlery and the sharp, pointed object on which he impales bills. When Obama arrived, he commented on Van Duzer’s imposing physique.

“Whoaa . . . look at those muscles!” the president said. “If I eat pizza, will I get as big and strong as you are?”

“You wanna see strong? I’ll show you strong,” Van Duzer replied, wrapping Obama in a bear hug and lifting him off the floor. The image went viral.

Van Duzer is the latest in a string of ordinary people rendered famous by Obama. During the 2008 campaign, Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher asked Obama about taxes on small businesses at a rally. “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” Obama replied. John McCain seized on the issue and it dominated the next presidential debate.

Today, Wurzelbacher is standing as a blue-collar conservative against the 15-term Democratic congresswoman Marcy Kaptur in northern Ohio.

He’s likely to lose, but that hasn’t prevented vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan citing him as an example of hard-working Americans thwarted by government regulation.

Marcelas Owens was 11 years old when he worked the halls of Congress campaigning for the healthcare Bill in 2010. His mother Tiffany had died of pulmonary hypertension in 2007 after she had lost her insurance.

Marcelas stood to the right of Obama when he signed the Affordable Care Act. He was back on television this year, in the run-up to the Supreme Court decision that upheld the Bill.

Jacob Philadelphia was five years old when a photograph of him and the president became a potent symbol of what Obama’s first term meant to African Americans.

The boy’s father Carlton, a former marine, had taken his family to the Oval Office for a farewell photograph, after completing a stint with the national security council. As the family were leaving, Jacob shyly asked Obama, “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.” “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” Obama said, bending down towards Jacob. When the boy hesitated, Obama insisted, “Touch it, dude!”

The White House this week followed up on Van Duzer’s encounter with the president, inviting him to attend the foreign policy debate between Obama and Mitt Romney.

Van Duzer was seated beside the first lady. “As great as he is, she’s even better!” Van Duzer said, showing me a photo on his iPhone of him bumping fists with Michelle Obama.

At Obama’s invitation, he introduced the president at the rally the following morning.

The president’s encounters with people such as Van Duzer, and Obama’s distant Irish cousin Henry Healy, could be construed as astute public relations. After all, Van Duzer is a popular figure in his community. But they also help Obama to break out of the “bubble” he complains of, to see the world through the eyes of ordinary humans.

“Sometimes you meet somebody and you have an instant connection. You just kinda bond,” Van Duzer tells me. Out of family tradition, he’s a registered Republican. But “I just don’t feel that connection with Mitt Romney. I feel maybe he doesn’t know what the needs of the middle class are.”

There has been a downside to Van Duzer’s 15 minutes of fame: “We had death threats from Republicans saying, ‘How dare you?’” he says. “They threatened the girls [who work in his pizzeria] on the phone. They said, ‘We have Obama masks and we’re going to rape you.’ It was very disturbing.”

After he hugged Obama, the networks flew Van Duzer to New York, where he appeared on six television programmes. He says he has been interviewed by 200 radio stations, including the BBC and Radio Canada. Czech TV will call on him today. Strangers, men and women, frequently approach him to ask for hugs; Van Duzer estimates he has lifted up 150 people.

“It’s turned into a pretty wild ride,” Van Duzer sighs. “I thought I’d be back in my pizza shop by Wednesday. But they still want the hug.”

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