President Barack Obama couldn’t leave Baton Rouge without grabbing a po-boy.
So Obama, who picked Louisiana’s capital as the location for his second major appearance following this week’s State of the Union address, gave a bit of a surprise to the dozen or so people eating lunch at Poor Boy Lloyd’s when he arrived in downtown Baton Rouge on Thursday.
For those wondering: He ordered a wide sampling — oyster po-boys, shrimp po-boys, roast beef po-boys and red beans and rice — to go before chatting up the cafe’s other diners and a gathering of schoolteachers out front.
Edris Patterson, a teacher at Mentorship Academy, got a text from her husband, who was eating at the lunch stop down the street: Obama was on the way but don’t bother coming because security wasn’t letting anyone else in.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. But just as soon as she had missed her opportunity to see the president, she regained it. Patterson was among a handful of schoolteachers picked to meet Obama and take photos with him on the sidewalk outside Poor Boy Lloyd’s.
“For both of us to meet him on the same day — it’s a blessing,” she said of the chance encounters she and her husband experienced.
The cafe stop was the finale to Obama’s whirlwind 17 hours in Baton Rouge — his first official trip to the city as president.
Over the course of his brief stay, Obama:
Met Gov. John Bel Edwards for the first time
Formally announced a proposal to provide financial reprieve to states that expand their Medicaid programs later than other states
Entertained a friendly crowd of about 1,000 people at Baton Rouge’s McKinley Senior High School
Took part in a virtual question-and-answer session via Twitter
And was greeted by hundreds of shouting fans who waved signs and held up cellphones as his motorcade passed through the city several times Thursday.
But a major sour note he hit during his appearance in Baton Rouge: He ended by saying, “Thank you, New Orleans.”
The trip was part of his tradition of holding major appearances across the nation following his State of the Union speeches. As he has with others, he used the Baton Rouge stop to mostly amplify the themes and messages laid out in Tuesday’s State of the Union, including calls for more unity and optimism from Americans.
“We work best as a team,” he told the crowd. “It is my ardent hope that, during the course of this year, as long as I have this extraordinary privilege to be your president, that I’m going to be able to encourage more and more of you to get involved and feel that optimism and confidence about where America is headed.”
He also formally announced a proposal that would give states like Louisiana credit for the federal money they have missed out on because they have waited to expand Medicaid.
Edwards, a Democrat who was sworn into office on Monday and attended Obama’s town hall, made Medicaid expansion his first major action as governor on Tuesday, signing an executive order to kick-start the process. An estimated 300,000 Louisiana residents are expected to qualify for Medicaid health care coverage when eligibility is expanded to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
Edwards, who had distanced himself from Obama’s policies in the run-up to the Nov. 21 election, met the president for the first time Wednesday night at the airport. He joined Obama in his motorcade to talk about Medicaid as they traveled to the Holiday Inn where the president stayed.
“Anytime the president of the United States, in either party, comes to your state, it is exciting,” Edwards said of the meeting.
Obama praised what he called Edwards’ “bold and wise” action to expand Medicaid, which former Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, had blocked. Obama also used Edwards’ action to signal increased support for his signature health care law. Louisiana will become the 31st state to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act.
“It was the right thing to do,” Obama said. “And, by the way, it will actually help the state’s finances, and it shows you why elections matter.”
Obama’s budget for the coming year will include a legislative proposal to provide any state that opts into Medicaid expansion through the federal Affordable Care Act three years of full federal support, including those like Louisiana who expand later than others.
It’s unclear how receptive Congress would be to such a proposal. “Obamacare” remains unpopular among many Republicans, who have continued efforts to repeal the health care law.
Obama only briefly touched on his Medicaid proposal during the McKinley town hall before taking a series of questions from the audience. Nearly all were softballs: “How can I be more like you?” “Will you give my grandma a hug?” “How can we convince the first lady to run for president?”
The first questioner, who identified herself as Rachel from Texas didn’t have anything to ask Obama.
“I just wanna tell you ‘Thank you,’ ” she said.
Obama is generally seen as unpopular in Louisiana — he won about 40 percent of the vote in Louisiana in the 2008 and 2012 elections. But the town hall, in the predominantly black and lower-income Old South Baton Rouge, was overwhelmingly filled with die-hard supporters.
“I’ve been trying to pack all my fun trips into my last year,” he joked to the crowd. “Although I missed the Tigers beating Ole Miss last night, maybe I’ll come back for football season.”