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Is progressive Asheville Obama’s vision for America?

Hip, environmentally aware, self-reliant and undeniably quaint, Asheville, N.C is a progressive’s vision of what America could be. But mountain liberalism comes at a price.

By Staff writer / April 24, 2010

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama meet other hikers while walking along a trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway outside of Asheville, N.C., Friday.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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Okay, maybe the Obamas’ Asheville, N.C., trip is just a romantic getaway and a chance to grab some 12 Bones BBQ, as the White House suggests.

But you know something is going on when even the local “tea party” affiliate welcomes Obama to their “mountain paradise.”

Critics like Hoover Institution fellow Shelby Steele have complained that Obama’s “ultimate vision, he has not been very clear about.”

So given that the Obamas “kind of fell in love” with the Buncombe County burg during a debate prep visit during the 2008 campaign, could Asheville itself be a clue to what the President is thinking when he talks about “transforming” America?

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'Hillbilly-hippies'

Founded as a health resort, the little city of “hillbilly-hippies,” entrepreneurs, musicians, retirees, and community drum circles is, indeed, a progressive’s vision of America.

Nestled in the oldest hills on earth, Asheville (pop. 70,000), the first East Coast city to require sustainable green construction, is a sort of experiment in environmentalism that has made the city the gateway to the new Appalachia and gotten it listed both as one of America’s “happiest places” and as one of the “best places to reinvent your life.”

But it also represents conservative fears about what President’s intentions might wreak: A dearth of high-paying jobs, relatively high taxes, large numbers of homeless and other wards of the state, a high crime rate, and a progressive ruling class perhaps more interested in maintaining quaintness than thickening residents’ wallets.

“At least as far back as the arrival of the Vanderbilts, it has been a haven for artists, innovative types, sophisticated thinkers, and people who want a little something more out of life than the average,” writes former resident Thomas Osborne on City-Data.com. “Asheville is cultured and educated, perhaps more like a New England town, but amazingly friendly and polite, like a piece of decent southern aristocracy.”

To be sure, the visit also fits into Obama’s “White House to Main Street” program, where he will travel next week to the struggling small towns of the Midwest who first gave him real traction in the 2008 campaign.

'A guy like the rest of us'

And compared to other presidential vacations to tony Martha’s Vineyard, this trip represents a “middle class” vacation to portray Obama as what Dolly Jenkins-Mullen of the University of North Carolina calls “a guy like the rest of us” as Congress ponders a crackdown on Wall Street.

Politically, the visit – the President’s fourth to North Carolina – also could be a signal, writes Politico, that his popularity in North Carolina, a state he stole from the Republicans in 2008, is turning as Democratic support fractures.

But if Asheville is indeed an Obama vision for America, there’s a stark lesson about the impact of soaring debt in hard times to glean from the city, as well.

The city’s success today – embodied by its rich catalog of Art Deco buildings – came at a price.

As a result of the 1920s building spree, Asheville “entered the Depression with the highest per capita debt in the country,” writes New Hampshire native Terry Pindell in “A Good Place to Live.”

“All across America, governments declared bankruptcy, further contributing … to the national depression. But Ashevillians’ stubborn mountain pride led them to choose a different path [which] made Asheville what it is today. They created a sinking fund to pay off every cent of the debt, no matter how long it took. [T]he debt wasn’t retired until 1977. For forty years Asheville lay in an economic cocoon – a long sleep.”

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