HILL AIR FORCE BASE — President Barack Obama arrived in Utah on Thursday to cheers from military families gathered to see Air Force One touch down at Hill Air Force Base, where he'll hold an event on solar power and the economy Friday.
Utahns also waved at the presidential motorcade from freeway overpasses as it made its way to the Sheraton Hotel in Salt Lake City, where Obama was spending the night.
Outside the hotel and along 600 South, more than 50 people gathered holding their cellphones in the air and waving to Obama on his first visit to Utah as president.
Once inside the hotel, the president met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as state and local officials. Friday morning, Obama will head back to HAFB for a roundtable discussion and speech.
After Air Force One landed about 8:10 p.m., the Democratic president was greeted by Utah leaders, including Gov. Gary Herbert, the incoming chairman of the National Governors Association, and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, both Republicans.
The state's top Democrats were also there, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who cut short a family vacation. Becker said he chatted with the president about the mountains and full moon overhead.
Military families waited outside in unseasonably cold temperatures for more than an hour to see their commander in chief. For Lt. Col. Tom Wolfe, an F-16 fighter pilot, it was a chance for his young daughters to see a role model.
"I want them to realize they can be anything they want to be," Wolfe said as Violet, 4, and Charlotte, 7, huddled together on the tarmac. "I've got two girls, just like the president."
Charlotte said she planned to tell her classmates about seeing the president. "It's crazy," she said.
Obama shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures with families, including Jim McDonough, a Salt Lake City technology company employee whose brother, Denis, is the president's chief of staff.
Nine-year-old Joseph McDonough could hardly contain his excitement.
"It was awesome," the young boy, dressed in a bow tie, all but screamed when asked about meeting the president. "He asked me my grade and what my name was. It was nerve-racking, I guess."
Traffic was cleared before Obama’s motorcade made its way from Hill onto I-15, diverting onto Legacy Parkway and winding back to downtown Salt Lake City just before 9:15 p.m.
Obama met with LDS Church leaders at the hotel, including President Henry B. Eyring and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the First Presidency, and Elder L. Tom Perry and Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Deputy White House press secretary Eric Schultz said they were expected to talk about the church's long record of service, including its work on disaster relief and other humanitarian issues, and the need to fix the nation's broken immigration system.
The leaders were also to discuss the need to forge more common ground across differences and to promote service to neighbors, both in the United States and around the world.
LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson did not attend the meeting.
"Because of the need to preserve his strength for this weekend’s general conference, it was felt that the logistics of meeting away from church offices, with the walking and the waiting periods associated with a presidential visit, would regrettably not be conducive to President Monson’s participation," said church spokesman Eric Hawkins.
Hawkins said President Monson remembers fondly his visit to the White House to present Obama with his personal family history in 2009.
Becker, who wore a set of cufflinks given to him by first lady Michelle Obama, said he gave the president a personalized University of Utah jersey as well as a sweatshirt from the campus during their brief meeting at the hotel.
The Salt Lake City mayor said he will attend the president's roundtable discussion and speech Friday at HAFB before Air Force One takes off about 11:30 a.m. for Washington.
"It feels great, certainly for me as a Democrat and someone who is very proud of this president and what he’s accomplished," Becker said. He plans to bring up the city's solar energy efforts.
Herbert rode with Obama in the motorcade from Hill to the hotel.
During the ride, they talked about Utah's public lands initiative, the state's effort to craft an alternative to Medicaid expansion, and the payment in lieu of taxes, which many rural counties depend on for public services.
“I appreciate the president’s invitation to ride in the motorcade with him to his hotel, which allowed us time to discuss a number of important issues," Herbert said in a statement.
The governor said they also discussed a proposal to reform the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act to give the states greater authority in education, the importance of international trade and other issues related to the National Governors Association.
Air Force One was supposed to touch down about 5:30 p.m., but the president delayed his departure from Washington about three hours to announce a breakthrough in negotiations to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
On his way to Utah, Obama stopped to make remarks in Louisville, Kentucky, at Indatus, a company involved in an initiative to boost technology training for would-be software developers.
"We want more places to follow Kentucky's example. We should invest in what works. The budget I sent to Congress includes these priorities," the president told employees of the tech company.
Utah had been one of just two states the president had not traveled to while in the White House. Now, South Dakota is the only state he hasn't visited as president.
Both of Utah's GOP senators met Air Force One.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, third in line for the presidency as the Senate president pro tempore, was accompanied at the base by his own security detail. Sen. Mike Lee had held a town hall meeting in nearby Kaysville earlier in the evening.
Also with the president on the tarmac was Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, whose congressional district includes the military base. None of the other three members of Utah's all Republican delegation participated in the welcome.
Rep. Chris Stewart said he wasn't formally invited, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz said he had other plans. Rep. Mia Love had already decided to stay in Washington, D.C., for the Easter holiday so had to miss the president's visit.
“Unfortunately, I will be out of town for the president’s visit," Love said. "But I welcome him to Utah and hope he will listen to the concerns of people in the state while he’s here.”
Having the president staying at a downtown hotel surprised other guests.
For Rea and Barrett Shipman of Laramie, Wyoming, finding what had been turned into a secure fortress was a shock. The couple had made reservations when they found a deal online in February in anticipation of their son’s basketball tournament.
Other families on their way to basketball tournament arrived first, being told only that a “secure event” was happening at the hotel. A quick Google search solved the mystery.
“We had no idea,” Rea Shipman said. “It’s been pretty smooth. It was a little difficult to get in at first because we didn’t know what was going on, but other than that, it just took a little longer to get into the parking lot.”
Once inside, the Shipman family and other members of the Gem City Wranglers basketball team lounged in front of the lobby fire and watched the parade of security personal filing past.
“The kids were excited,” Barrett Shipman said. “It would have been exciting if we could have seen him."
Camden Shipman, 11, and Kylin Shipman, 8, insisted they would have recognized the president if he had come through the hotel lobby.
“I just want to get a selfie with the president,” Camden said.
Contributing: McKenzie Romero
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