Obama in Detroit appearance: Help hurricane victims
Shortened speech says spirit of labor movement can go to work
Barack Obama cut short a Labor Day speech to an expectant, fired-up crowd at Detroit's Hart Plaza, offering prayer instead of political punches to acknowledge concerns about Hurricane Gustav.
"There is a time to argue politics, and there's a time to come together as Americans," he said in deference to distressed and evacuated gulf coast residents and a storm that threatened great damage but lost power as it slammed into Louisiana.
In his first Detroit appearance as the Democratic presidential nominee, Obama surely disappointed many in the crowd -- estimated at more than 20,000 in Hart Plaza and another 10,000 just outside along Jefferson Avenue -- with less than 10 minutes of remarks, although people appeared forgiving. Many had waited hours in lines that snaked around buildings to see Obama after the annual Labor Day parade.
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan stirred their anticipation in speaking to the crowd before Obama arrived, comparing the event with John F. Kennedy's Labor Day speech in Detroit during the presidential campaign of 1960.
Obama apologized for his brevity and urged compassion and togetherness. He held a moment of silent prayer and asked for donations to the Red Cross.
"I want all of us to remember that when we show solidarity with those folks in Louisiana and Mississippi and Texas and Alabama, that we are expressing the true spirit of the labor movement. Because the idea behind the labor movement is that you don't walk alone, you're not by yourself.
"Each of us are vulnerable by ourselves. ... But when we are unified, we come together in a more perfect union."
Still, Obama managed to serve up pro-labor sentiments, telling the crowd that he supports federal legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize. In a lighter moment, he sang a few bars of Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools," while the singer looked on from the crowd.
"I'm a labor guy, I believe in the labor movement," Obama said. "It's important to have a president who doesn't choke on the word union. I believe we need a Department of Labor that believes in labor."
The shortened speech was a relief to organizers of the Detroit International Jazz Festival. He left the stage 15 minutes before the start of a tight schedule of acts in and around Hart Plaza. Noticeably absent from a stage full of politicians and union leaders were embattled Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, his mother, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, and U.S. Rep. John Conyers.
Later, Obama canceled a planned overnight stay in Milwaukee to return to his Chicago headquarters and monitor Hurricane Gustav's damage to gulf coast states. His campaign offices in North Carolina solicited nonperishable goods for Gustav's victims.
In Pittsburgh, Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, declined to march in that city's Labor Day parade, saying it would be inappropriate.
In Battle Creek on Sunday, Obama and Biden tore into Republican presidential candidate John McCain and stirred a crowd of 10,000 or more with a litany of promises for middle-class families. Republicans criticized the speech as inappropriate, with potential suffering at hand from Gustav.
Some of those who listened under a hot late-morning sun Monday accepted Obama's brief speech.
"Not at all," said Linda Ard, 63, of Puerto Rico, when asked whether she was disappointed. She was visiting her friend Karen St. Martin, 64, of Wyandotte. "It was worth it seeing him. I think he did a terrific job. He hit exactly the right note."
Ken Hobbs, 44, a firefighter from Ypsilanti, said he was disappointed after waiting an hour in line with his son, Kindred, 14. "After watching his other speeches and liking those, I was kind of looking for a little bit more than that," Hobbs said. "But what can you say? I guess he's got a busy schedule, he's supposed to be in Monroe. I'm disappointed, but glad to be able to see him."
At the Monroe event, Obama sternly refused to react to news reports that Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's 17-year-old unmarried daughter is pregnant.
"Families are off-limits, and people's children are especially off-limits," he told reporters. "I would strongly urge people to back off those ... stories."
Obama said his mother was 18 when she gave birth to him.
"That should never be a topic of our politics," he said.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm joined Obama in Monroe.
If the people in Detroit wanted fiery pro-union speeches, they got them from three of the nation's top labor leaders who preceded Obama to the stage -- AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa and UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, who introduced Obama to the crowd.
See Gettelfinger, Obama speak
Sweeney later praised Obama: "I think he did the right thing by putting aside partisan politics. He expressed himself on the labor movement, the need for people to come together in time of need."
Contact CHRIS CHRISTOFF at 517-372-8660 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Ben Schmitt and the Associated Press contributed to this report.