Ever since he began his uphill battle for the presidency two years ago, Barack Obama has been mobbed for photos and autographs, and that enthusiasm and passion has only grown since he entered the Oval Office. But even Obama must be a little taken aback by the identity of some of his well-wishers of late. After his address to Congress on Feb. 24, the same House Republicans who had decried his stimulus plan as the work of another tax-and-spend liberal crowded around him like starstruck tween girls at a Jonas Brothers concert, all to get his John Hancock on their copies of the speech.
Members of Congress have always gotten autographed photos of themselves with the President at bill signings and other events keepsakes that are then prominently displayed in their offices. It is unusual, though, for Representatives and Senators to cross the aisle. None of the Democrats I spoke with had anything signed from President George W. Bush except for Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who has five large framed photos of Bush in his office, which probably speaks more to Lieberman's strained relationship with his own party than any Bush popularity. So why the crossover with Obama? "It reflects the fact that although their leadership is stuck in a negative mode the 'party of no' their membership is more open-minded," says Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who had her copy of the speech signed so she could frame it and hang it in her office. "It shows that his attempts to reach across the aisle are having some effect." (See pictures of the best Obama Inaugural merchandise.)
That may be wishful thinking. It's possible that Republicans, no matter how much they may disagree with Obama's politics, recognize the groundbreaking nature of his presidency and want to have a piece of history. It's more likely that they realize Obama is still riding an incredible wave of popularity, something no politician has ever been above attaching him- or herself to. (See pictures of Obama on Flickr.)
All the GOP autograph-seeking does beg the question, What exactly does a Republican member of Congress do with a signed copy of a popular Democratic President's address to Congress? Some Republicans say they got them for their kids, some say it was for charity and others simply wanted a collectors' item. "It's an honor just to be there. It is the President of the United States, after all, no matter the party," says Representative Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican who plans to give his signed speech to two students from a school in his district who had visited him earlier in the week. But Murphy makes clear that acquiring an autograph also helps get you a little more face time with the President.
"It's an important opportunity to get 10, 20, 30 seconds with the President," says Murphy. "For me, I talked to [Obama] about health care, told him I wanted to work with him. Getting something signed gives you perhaps 10 more seconds." (Read "Town Overboard: A Conservative Gripe About Obamamania.")
Representative Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican, rushed out after the speech to meet his two daughters, Carolyn, 14, and Jessica, 17. When he won his seat in 2002, he started a project of collecting autographs with the girls, in part to make up for being gone so often. The girls have dozens of signatures from Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Two weeks ago, they got President Bill Clinton's signature at an event honoring Representative John Dingell. And so on Feb. 24, Turner waited at the exit with his girls, clutching Obama photographs. Signing the paraphernalia, Obama joked, as he often does, "I better not see it on eBay!" Says Turner: "The girls thought it was funny."
Since early in the primaries, Obama has insisted on only autographing items that are addressed to specific people. In fact, he got into an ugly scene in Philadelphia just before the Pennsylvania primary in April with an autograph hunter who was upset that Obama wouldn't just give his John Hancock and nothing else. But Obama has good reason to be leery he could restart the economy with a glut of such paraphernalia. Items signed by him are selling for upwards of $1,900 on eBay, and there are dozens of listings. So far none of the bound copies of his speech has made it onto eBay though at least one member of Congress has said he will donate his signed copy to a group that will probably sell it. "I did it a couple of years ago for the Marshall Chamber of Commerce, and they auctioned off the copy signed by President Bush," says Louie Gohmert, a Republican from Texas. "I'll offer it to other chambers now. Once you write this, though, I'm a little worried I'm going to get inundated for requests!"
Not that getting Obama's autograph is going to make Representative John Culberson, a Texas Republican, any more willing to vote for Obama's agenda. "No, it wouldn't have an effect," says Culberson, who got to the chamber at 8:30 in the morning to save an aisle seat in order to be the first in line to get his speech signed, a memento for his 12-year-old daughter. "This is a piece of history like the ones I have from President Bush and Vice President Cheney. And it doesn't hurt to have your constituents see you with the President."