It was the president’s first visit to the county, a Democratic stronghold that sits in one of the country’s staunchest red states.
His visit came as part of a three-state swing promoting his education agenda unveiled in his State of the Union address on Feb. 12.
Janet Cutter waited for hours for a glimpse of the president.
“This is a historic moment,” she said. “I may never see this again.”
She was among hundreds of people who lined the sidewalks on Sycamore Street in downtown Decatur in the hopes that his motorcade would come by them.
It didn’t, using a side entrance instead.
Only invited guests were allowed into the newly renovated Decatur Recreation Center.
Lois Pobanz, also a city of Decatur resident, walked a short distance to wait with a pink hand-written sign that said: “My Sister Loves President Obama (Sorry Michelle).”
She said her older sister, Liz Doss, who lives outside Cincinnati, is an “Obamaphile.”
“She loves him,” she said with a laugh. “I just like him. … I am not thrilled with his fiscal policies, but I thought if the president could come this far, I could walk half a mile to greet him.”
Obama stopped at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center where he visited and joked with the young students before speaking before a friendly crowd of teachers, parents, students and dignitaries.
“The plan I put forward says we need to make smart choices for the country, both to grow our economy and shrink our deficits in a balanced way by cutting what we don’t need, but then investing in the things that we do need to make sure everybody has a chance to get ahead,” he said.
During his 15-minute speech, punctuated with applause, the president praised Georgia’s pre-k efforts as a model for the nation.
In the audience were Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Fulton County Chairman John Eaves, several state senators and House representatives, DeKalb judges, pastors, and DeKalb Commissioners Lee May and Kathie Gannon, but no DeKalb School Board members nor CEO Burrell Ellis.
David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators who was present, said it is good for Georgia to get some recognition for its pre-k program.
“In school, I can tell the students who have been in pre-k,” he said. “I tutor second-grade students and I can see the difference. Kids who go to pre-k are more prepared, have better skills, and get along with their peers.”
Obama said that education has to start at the earliest possible age.
“The kids I had a chance to see today, they’re some of the lucky ones. Because fewer than three in 10 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.”
He said he knows that private preschool can cost a few hundred dollars a week and is out of reach of most middle-class families.
“For the poor children who need it the most, the lack of access to a great preschool education can have an impact on their entire lives and we all pay a price for that,” he said to cheers and applause.
Fourth District U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson was glad the president chose his district to expound on his early childhood program.
“Georgia has been a leader in the pre-k movement for 20 years,” he said.
“We are the first state to dedicate a revenue stream, through the lottery, so that 3- and 4-year-olds can start going to school. We are the first state to have a statewide pre-k program. It’s only fitting that the president would come here to see for himself the value of educating children from the earliest opportunity.”
Statewide, about 84,000 children who are 4-year-olds are enrolled in the lottery-funded pre-k. Sixty percent are from low-income families. There are 8,000 on waiting lists.
“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on,” Obama said. “Boosting the graduation rate reduces teen pregnancy.”
Without going into specifics about how he would make pre-k more affordable, he said he empathizes with parents looking for good child care and dealing with its costs.
“The size of your paycheck shouldn’t determine your child’s school,” he said.
Obama also praised teachers, saying great teachers are behind successful students.
“In the end that’s what this is all about, giving our kids the best possible shot.”
He stopped to shake hands with members of the audience before his motorcade left for Dobbins Air Reserve Base and the flight back to Washington aboard Air Force One.
Protesters also came out to express unhappiness with Obama’s war and green policies. Jin Zhao, Roberta Caldwell and Natalie Cornett of Decatur held signs denouncing the use of drones.
Zhao said she opposed drone attacks on countries like Somali, Yemen and Pakistan that are not at war with the United States.
“These are crimes against humans,” she said. “We don’t live in terror in the U.S. These people should not be living in terror either. This is wrong and it should stop.”