DAYTON — President Barack Obama discussed energy policy with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and gave British Prime Minister David Cameron basketball tips Tuesday at an NCAA tournament game at UD Arena, during a brief election-year trip to a crucial swing state.
“Sometimes when we have foreign visitors, they’re only visiting the coasts,” Obama said during a halftime interview . “They go to New York, they go to Washington, they go to Los Angeles, but the heartland is what it’s all about.”
Obama, Cameron and Kasich attended an NCAA First Four game at UD Arena as part of Cameron’s three-day visit to the United States to discuss foreign policy in Afghanistan, Iran and Syria.
Obama and Cameron flew back to Washington, D.C., after watching Western Kentucky make a huge comeback to defeat Mississippi Valley State, 59-58.
Obama and Cameron were met by cheering crowds, both at the arena and at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where Air Force One was greeted at 5:42 p.m. by a crowd of 100 service members.
The two leaders spoke to the airmen and a group of dignitaries, including Kasich, Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell, and Col. Amanda Gladney, 88th Air Base Wing Commander at Wright-Patt, who had a laugh and a hug with the president.
“This is great,” said Leitzell after speaking to the president and Cameron. Leitzell said he told them Dayton is a great place, and Obama “actually indicated it is a great place. We are on the same wavelength.”
“I just like the fact that for the first time in a long time the world is focused on Dayton,” said Leitzell, who spent much of his childhood and his college years in England. The mayor did not attend the basketball game, saying he had a previous engagement to attend the Turkish-American Society dinner in Dayton.
Obama didn’t talk politics in his televised interview, but Kasich said he spent some of the first half lobbying the president on shale gas development in Ohio.
“I was telling him about what we’re doing on shale,” Kasich said. “He’s concerned about the environment. We can do it where it’s environmentally sound, and we can get the jobs.”
Kasich is expected to announce changes to the state’s budget today including a possible increase in fees on oil and gas companies.
Asked if they discussed gas prices, Kasich said, “A lot of this is having a chance to spend some time; I don’t want to get into all the details of what we talked about; that wouldn’t be appropriate.”
Obama’s visit comes as Dayton and Ohio have been at the heart of American politics the past two weeks. GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich visited the area just before the hard-fought Super Tuesday primary won by Romney. Possible GOP vice presidential candidate Marco Rubio made a speech Monday in Fairborn, and Vice President Joe Biden will attend a rally in Toledo on Thursday. Obama’s last visit to Dayton was during his 2008 presidential campaign.
While Obama and Cameron received a rousing welcome from service members and basketball fans Tuesday, the Republican National Committee was critical, saying Americans want Obama “to spend at least as much time” dealing with jobs, gas prices and deficits as with basketball.
“From job-crushing 'Obamacare’ to skyrocketing gas prices and unprecedented debt increases, Ohioans have had a courtside seat for President Obama’s air balls on the economy for three years,” Ohio Republican Party spokesman Christopher Maloney said in a statement.
But at UD Arena, when the casually dressed Obama and Cameron arrived just before tipoff, most of the crowd cheered, while leaning, squatting or holding a phone aloft to get a picture of the president.
“The prime minister has enjoyed meeting all the wonderful folks here,” Obama said. “We got a chance to talk to some young people, and ended up having a young lady from Great Britain who is actually studying here at Dayton.”
That UD senior, Josie Grant, said she leaned over toward Cameron when he walked by, telling him she was from England. She said Cameron asked about her hometown and introduced her to Obama, who asked about her major, which is exercise science. “I have to say, I’m feeling very overwhelmed,” Grant said. “I was shaking a little bit when I met them, but both seemed like really nice guys.”
The crowd was smaller than last year’s First Four opening night, despite a major push from local officials that included a Sunday street festival. UD officials said during the first game of the night that about 8,500 tickets had been sold. Last year’s Tuesday games drew 10,025.
“It was interesting that the upper level was pretty full, but there was some openness in lower seats,” said Dayton City Commissioner Nan Whaley, who served on the organizing committee for First Four. “But it was a fantastic game. It showed the value of the First Four that people get to see really great basketball. And getting to have the president and prime minister see an exciting, close game was great.”
Staff writers Kyle Nagel and Ken-Yon Hardy and the Associated Press contributed to this story.