WASHINGTON â President Barack Obama seized the bully pulpit Thursday and reprised the best of his acclaimed campaign skills in an unprecedented Internet town hall from the White House â a direct sales pitch for Americans to get behind his $3.6 trillion budget and be patient as he tries to right the tottering economy.
After an opening statement and declaring, “This isn’t about me, it’s about you,” Obama took up a microphone and strolled the ornate East Room, playing to an audience of 100 invited guests and what the White House said were an estimated 67,000 people watching him in cyberspace.
The event capped a concerted Obama recent public relations foray in support of his young administration’s assault on the country’s twin crises in the economy and financial system, including two in-person town hall meetings in California and an appearance on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show.” On Tuesday Obama held a nationally televised news conference, also in the East Room, calling on an unusual mix of reporters in an apparent attempt to shake up the focus of questioning.
Obama explained he had called the first-of-its-kind online town hall meeting as an “an important step” toward creating a broader avenue for information about his administration. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said there would be more such events.
Timing, of course, was key. Obama was beamed out through cyberspace a day after the House Budget Committee adopted a spending and revenue plan that broadly matched his massive $3.6 trillion outline even while seeking to reel back on deficit projections.
In a forum that gave him an essentially passive audience, Obama said the budget would put the country on a path to “a recovery that will be measured by whether it lasts, whether it endures; by whether we build our economy on a solid foundation instead of an overheated housing market or maxed-out credit cards or the sleight of hand on Wall Street; whether we build an economy in which prosperity is broadly shared.”
Obama’s Republican opposition â which he pointedly did not mention Thursday â has fought his budget proposal, broadly declaring it a spending recipe for national bankruptcy.
Not surprisingly, the Internet questioning dovetailed with the president’s key projects: universal health care, improved education, energy independence and the range of promises made in the White House campaign.
At times flashing his broad smile and at others determined and serious, Obama drew on his own experiences with the American health care system to empathize with one questioner who supported his goal of universal coverage.
He threw bouquets of praise to nurses who helped the family when his daughter Sasha was stricken with meningitis and returned with vigor to a recounting of the experience of watching his fatally ill mother argue with an insurance company to pay what it owed her for ovarian cancer treatment.
In a lighter moment, Obama noted there had been heavy support for a question about legalizing marijuana as a means of boosting the economy and creating jobs.
“The answer is, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy,” he quipped. The in-house audience tittered.
The president did not make news, but ran smoothly through answers to questions posed to him on the White House Web site and chosen according to rankings by respondents. A moderator read Obama some of the questions and other questions were displayed on monitors in the room.
And with more than 100,000 questions submitted for the forum, it gave the administration a significant number of e-mail addresses for future outreach and the next campaign.
The economy dominated, allowing Obama to sell his agenda for putting the country on a sounder footing in the midst of the worst economic downturn in decades and a financial crisis unmatched since the 1930s.
One questioner asked why the U.S. did not adopt a European-style government-sponsored health care system.
Because, Obama responded, he believed the best way forward was to build on the current system that relies heavily on employer plans rather than scrap what has existed for generations and largely has met the need of a majority of Americans.
Nevertheless, he said, any overhaul must cope with the country’s institutions that aren’t easily transformed, specifically pointing to Medicare and Medicaid, as well as the millions of Americans who are uninsured.
Detroit automakers, he said, must evolve or face extinction. He promised more help to the struggling industry but demanded a new way of doing business.
“A lot of it’s going to depend on their (the auto industry’s) willingness to make some pretty drastic changes. And some of those are still going to be painful,” he said.
As reflected in the Internet questioning, housing was near the top of American concerns, prompting Obama to urge mortgage refinancing for the 40 percent of American homeowners that he said were eligible under his programs. Mortgage rates have hit record lows.
Obama appeared off balance only once, in an exchange with Bonnee Breese, a Philadelphia high school teacher in the East Room audience who questioned the president about charter schools and his efforts to improve the national teaching corps.
“OK, so you’ve been teaching for 15 years,” Obama said at one point, directly addressing Breese and laughing. “I’ll bet you’ll admit that during those 15 years there have been a couple of teachers that you’ve met â you don’t have to say their names â who you would not put your child in their classroom. See? Right? You’re not saying anything. You’re taking the Fifth.”
Obama was clearly teasing Breese, who turned her head away, seemingly in embarrassment or disagreement.