Obama tells Calif. things will get better

March 19, 2009|By Peter Nicholas | Peter Nicholas,Tribune Washington Bureau

COSTA MESA, Calif. -At a town hall meeting yesterday during which people spoke of their lost jobs and their fears of economic problems to come, President Barack Obama painted his ambitious policy agenda as the antidote.

Obama spoke to an audience of about 1,300 during his first stop on a two-day swing through California, aimed at mobilizing public support for his multitrillion-dollar budget. He wanted to visit a state coping with job losses and home foreclosures. And in a question-and-answer session, he quickly got a taste of how the sour economy has upended lives in Southern California.

Dwaine Webber, 45, of Norwalk, Calif., talked of how he had lost a position at Toyota after 13 years and couldn't find a job because of a two-decade-old felony conviction. A teacher told Obama that she and a colleague - who had been named Teacher of the Year - had just gotten pink slips.

Obama addressed the crowd with a mix of wonky detail about the roots of the economic collapse (he used the term "securitized mortgage instruments" at one point) and a promise that recovery was in the offing. Fielding a range of questions, he outlined his thinking on immigration, bank loans and school class size.

"I can't tell you how long it's going to take or what obstacles we'll face along the way, but I can promise you this - there will be brighter days ahead, here in California and all across America," the president said. "But that's only going to happen if we pull together and focus on the big things. Focus on the long term."

Obama got a raucous welcome. Some people had camped out overnight at the Orange County Fairgrounds to get a look at the 44th president.

When he arrived at 3:45 p.m., people who had packed into the sweltering auditorium stood and chanted: "Obama! Obama!" The president tried to get them to sit, explaining: "We're going to be here a while."

The California visit is the latest in a series of out-of-town trips Obama has been making to keep public attention focused where he wants it: his attempt to pass a budget and trigger an economic recovery. While he is using traditional town hall events to get out his message, he also is turning to unorthodox formats. Today, he will make an appearance on Jay Leno's The Tonight Show in hopes of reaching a different kind of audience, a White House aide said.

California's struggles underscore the risks of government inaction, said the aide, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing the president's plans. Figures released by the White House show that California's unemployment rate stood at 10.1 percent in January - more than a 4-percentage-point increase since December 2007. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, unemployment was 10.5 percent in January, the highest point since 1983.

Statewide, housing prices have dropped more than 27 percent since 2006, the highest rate of decline in the nation.

In the audience, fears of job loss were clear. Webber, a laid-off forklift operator, provided an emotional high point. But when he explained that his past conviction may have rendered him unemployable, Obama struggled for the right tone. He talked about plans to invest in fuel-efficient cars that more consumers want, but also sought to encourage Webber.

"The fact that you've been working steadily for 13 years, post-felony, seems to me a message that you made amends for your past mistakes and that you are rehabilitated, and that you've proven yourself in the job market," Obama said.

The Santa Ana teacher who had gotten a pink slip asked if money from the president's stimulus package would go to urban school districts "that need it the most." She said class sizes in her school run as large as 44.

Obama said that virtually all the money flowing to states under the plan was "designed to retain teachers." Classes that large are unacceptable, he said.

"You're right that class size is something that we've got to deal with. You can't have a fifth-grade class with 40 kids. There's no teacher who can deal with 40 kids all at the same time - especially if many of them are at different levels in terms of reading and math skills and so forth. So we've got to do something about that."

As Obama strives to build support for his agenda, he is finding that the millions in bonuses paid to executives of American International Group amount to a huge distraction.

"I don't want to quell anger. I think people are right to be angry. I'm angry. What I want to do, though, is channel our anger in a constructive way." Obama laid out plans for a new authority modeled after the FDIC that would work to prevent companies on the scale of AIG from collapsing.

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