For what may be the first time in more than 130 years, a sitting U.S. president is on his way to Kansas University.
And the reaction from KU students, as far as sophomore Rachel Hagan can tell, has been a resounding “Huh?”
“A lot of people are saying, just, why?” Hagan said as she sat around a table with some friends at the Underground eating space in Wescoe Hall at lunchtime Monday. “But aside from all the whys, I’m excited it’s happening.”
Other students, too, reported their enthusiasm about the imminent visit from President Barack Obama on Friday, which KU announced this past weekend. But their excitement was followed quickly by questions: When, exactly? Why is he coming? Where will he be? Can I go?
None of this information was contained in the KU announcement, and both KU and White House spokespeople said those details still weren’t available Monday.
Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon did say Monday that the White House told state party officials it was looking for a site that could hold 3,000 to 6,000 people for a midday event.
Though the situation might be confusing for locals, this is often how it goes when the president is coming to town, said Bill Lacy, director of KU’s Dole Institute of Politics.
“There’s really nothing odd going on here,” Lacy said. “This is pretty standard stuff. But it’s fun to get to watch it up close and personal, for a change.”
Lacy made it clear he was not at all involved in the planning for Obama’s visit and had no knowledge of what is happening. But as a former White House political director under Ronald Reagan, he’s had some experience with presidential scheduling.
And in general, Lacy said, the president’s schedule is set on his terms and his alone. Except in the case of a major event where the president’s attendance is a given, such as the Democratic National Convention, things are usually kept open until a few days beforehand.
“The president’s schedule is not set nearly as far ahead as everybody would think that it would be,” Lacy said.
So, for now, people are left to wonder what time of day Obama might appear in public — if, of course, he appears in public at all.
“If we know he’s going to be available, I will be there,” KU sophomore Davis St. Aubin said, “if I’m not taking a test.”
Other students said they would do whatever they needed to do to see the president, if the chance arose. Junior Kyle Maddox said that if that means he’ll have to miss his 1 p.m. class Friday, then so be it.
“Who would honestly miss that chance?” Maddox said.
Uncertainty is simply part of the game when you’re dealing with the president, Lacy said. He laughed when recalling that event organizers would sometimes be peeved when Reagan’s staff couldn’t confirm a month in advance that the president would be accepting an invitation.
“I would say to them, ‘If you’ve got to have an answer today, the only answer I can give today is no,’" Lacy said.
The president has a limited amount of time to devote to pursuing his agenda, Lacy said, so he can’t clog his schedule by committing to events weeks in advance.
So that would explain why the time might not be set. But that was hardly the only question popping up on campus Monday.
“Why Kansas?” freshman Fiona Wood said. “Why now?”
Lacy said he didn’t want to get into speculation on what the visit may be about, but he said it’s typical for the White House to need a good amount of time to work out logistics.
“The White House may not know what they want to do, or they may know what they want to do,” Lacy said. “I don’t have a clue. But it does take time before you can announce details.”
Even when former president George H.W. Bush accepted the Dole Leadership Prize at KU in 2008, or when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos came to the institute last fall, it required security efforts from secret services and multiple law enforcement agencies. So a presidential visit would mean a whole host of security plans to work out.
And if there’s a public event involved, Lacy said, the White House will need to figure out how to admit attendees.
“The job of moving the president around and protecting him is a really big job,” Lacy said. “But the people who do it are extraordinarily professional. And they’re used to doing these things turning on a dime.”
Several students Monday wondered how that huge operation might affect life on campus on Friday, especially when it comes to traffic and parking.
Even KU’s Young Democrats group isn’t sure what it will be able to do. But senior Evan Gates, who just stepped down as the group’s president as she prepares to graduate, said they’ll be pumped whatever happens.
“We’re going to see what he ends up talking about, and if it’s a public event, we’ll definitely do our best to be there,” Gates said. “If not, our plan is to be a welcoming group for him.”
And senior Jacob Peterson, president of the KU College Republicans, said he thought the news of the visit was great, too, and not just because he hoped there’d be a chance to ask the president some questions.
“I think it’s good anytime that we have any political leader on campus,” Peterson said. “I think that’s a good chance to get people involved, and we want people, regardless of where they stand, to get involved with politics.”
And a chance like this is rare: Mike Reid, a spokesman for the KU Memorial Unions who runs the website KUHistory.com, said his best guess after some research was that the last sitting U.S. president to visit the KU campus was Rutherford B. Hayes in 1879.
Even with all the questions, senior C.J. Harries said, it should be quite the day Friday.
“Whether I’d vote for him or not, it’ll be really cool for the president to come,” Harries said.