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Obama describes five pillars of recovery as questioners in Arnold focus on economy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 29, 2009 - Declaring "I'm confident in the future, but I'm not content with the present," President Barack Obama laid out a series of commitments today that he said would turn around the nation's economy and put it on a solid foundation.

Addressing about 1,200 people packed into the gym at Fox High School in Arnold, Obama framed his plan around "five pillars":

"No. 1 -- new investments in education that will equip our workers with the right skills and training;

"No. 2 -- new investments in renewable energy that will create millions of jobs and new industries;

"No. 3 --new investments in health care that will cut costs for families and businesses;

"No. 4 --new savings that will bring down our deficit;

"No. 5 --new rules for Wall Street that reward drive and innovation."

He called the plan "the most ambitious economic recovery plan in our nation's history."

"I've come back to report to you the American people that we've begun to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and we've begun the work of remaking America,'' the president said, touching off applause. "We're working to remake America."

Obama added that it was only fitting for him to lay out his 100-day report card in the Midwest and in the Show-Me State.

"We were here in Missouri at the end of a long journey to the White House,'' Obama said, referring to a flurry of final campaign stops in the state, "and so now I want to come back and speak to you at the beginning of another long journey."

He added that even his detractors shouldn't be surprised by his administration's actions or commitments: "Now, maybe they're not accustomed to this, but there's no mystery to what we've done. The priorities that we've acted upon were the things that we said we'd do during the campaign."

During the 90-minute town hall, Obama touched on a variety of topics. He underscored his commitment to improving the nation's public education, noting that the United States is failing to produce enough scientists and engineers. And he laid out various ways he hopes to attack climate change.

In response to questions from the audience, Obama also talked in detail about the international threats the nation faces, and how he believes they could best be confronted. He emphasized that the threats are not just from visible enemies, such as terrorists, but from virtually invisible agents, such as swine flu.

With both threats in mind, Obama said that the United States must continue providing foreign aid and other tools to improve our relationship with other countries. This is "not just the right thing to do from an ethical and moral" standpoint but from a practical point of view.

"If Mexico has a good strong public health system that is catching these things early, ultimately that's going to save us money because flu gets contained," Obama said.

He also cautioned against what he viewed as futile proposals to wall off the United States from its neighbors. "It's not just like we can draw a moat around America" to block problems, Obama said. "It just doesn't work that way."

The supportive audience packing the high school gym included most of Missouri's Democratic officials holding statewide or regional office, including U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and Gov. Jay Nixon. But the only other speakers sharing the stage or spotlight with the president during Wednesday's town hall were average, middle-class people.

Obama was introduced by Linda Pleimann, a hairdresser from Imperial whose husband Jeff works at the Anheuser-Busch brewery. Pleimann was a campaign volunteer for Obama and noted that he was the first Democratic presidential candidate she had supported since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

All of the questions during the Q and A portion -- which ran the gambit from the economy and Social Security to terrorism and foreign policy -- were posed by people in the audience, with Obama noting that none of the questioners had been vetted and none of the questions had been pre-screened.

But the lack of well-known speakers on stage underscored Obama's chief theme:

"My campaign wasn't born in Washington. My campaign was rooted in neighborhoods just like this one, in towns and cities all across America; rooted in folks who work hard and look after their families and seek a brighter future for their children and for their communities and for their country.

The first question came from a retired auto worker, who asked about the future of his pension and health care and those of tens of thousands of other retirees.

The questioner said that it appears that autoworkers and retirees were being asked to make sacrifices not being asked of Wall Street executives who, he said, were responsible for the economic woes.

Obama replied by laying out in detail some challenges facing Chrysler and General Motors. "But my attitude is, we got here not because our workers didn't do a great job trying to build a great product; it was because management decisions betrayed workers."

Among those, he said, were autos that until recently were not what Americans wanted to buy. He praised the American auto industry for coming up with new products and fuel-efficient cars but said the changes were not enough to counter the faulty decisions made in the past.

In an attempt to reassure the retired autoworker, Obama added, "I can tell you that no matter what happens, we want to provide certain protections to retirees for their health care and their pensions."

Overall, the president said, the problems facing the auto industry exemplify those facing the nation as a whole. "I want to get us back to making things," he said, "not just shuffling paper around."

He emphasized that the administration wasn't just paying attention to those at the top. "We've got the best workers, we just need the best plans."

Obama took a similar approach to the financial problems facing average Americans.

He said plainly that Social Security is "not going bankrupt," but if changes aren't made, those who collect Social Security in the coming decades will see benefit cuts of roughly 25 percent.

Obama blamed Washington politicians for using extra Social Security money during the program's plush years for other federal programs, instead of preserving the money to cover the huge population bloc of Baby Boomers (1946-64) who are now beginning to retire.

But now, the issue is how to resolve the Social Security fiscal problems, he continued. The best one, in Obama's view, is to raise the cap on Social Security contributions.

If you're Bill Gates, said the president, you're paying a fraction of the percentage of the average American worker.

(In 2009, the maximum earned gross income subject to Social Security tax is $106,800. Wage-earners do not pay Social Security on wages above that level.)

"For wealthier people, why don't we raise the cap?" Obama asked.

Obama said he opposed one proposed alternative -- raising the retirement age -- because he said it was unrealistic, and unfair, to expect assembly line workers and others involved in heavy labor to keep working until their late 60s. He noted that most Americans now can't receive full Social Security benefits unless they're 67 or over.

The president observed with a chuckle that he wasn't talking about U.S. senators. "If you're a senator, you can work until, you know..." Obama's voice intentionally trailed off, while the audience laughed. 

The more immediate problem isn't Social Security, said the president, it's Medicare, the nation's healthcare program for people age 65 and over.

With so many more retirees and older people coming into the health-care program, fewer workers subsidize the program, Obama said. But he added that the solution is broader than Medicare, and involves all health-care coverage in the nation -- public or private.

"Health-care costs are skyrocketing," said the president. If changes aren't made, "health care will cost so much of our budget, we won't be able to afford anything else."

"That's why I've said we've got to have health reform this year, to drive down costs and make health care affordable for American families, businesses and for our government," Obama said.

Such promises are among the reasons Missouri Republican Party chairman David Cole issued a statement from Jefferson City in which he asserted that the Obama administration's first 100 days "can be described in one word: overreach."

Obama "has rushed poorly crafted legislation through a rubber-stamp Congress, spending too much, borrowing too much, and taxing too much in the process,'' Cole said. "He has proposed an unmanageable government takeover of the United States health-care system and a job-killing stealth energy tax."

"One thing is certain," Cole concluded, "our children and grandchildren will remember Obama's first 100 days in office -- not for his accomplishments, but for the debt he has left behind."

Obama touched on such complaints in his closing remarks. "We are going to have to tighten our belts, but we're going to have to do it in an intelligent way, and we've got to make sure that the people who are helped are working American families,'' he said. "And we're not suddenly saying that the way to do this is to eliminate programs that help ordinary people and give more tax cuts to the wealthy. We tried that formula for eight years. It did not work, and I don't intend to go back to it."

After the program ended, Obama mingled with the audience for a few minutes shaking hands. After leaving the gym shortly before noon, he stayed in the building for another 45 minutes to have lunch, sign autographs and take photos with various Democratic officials and supporters.

He flew out in a cadre of four helicopters to Lambert.

Most of those in the gym were supporters of the president, so it's not surprising that their response was so positive.

Jay Salsman of Arnold, who works in catering at a local hotel offered a typical reaction. " I thought it was awesome," she said. "I just liked his answers."

Melissa Ammel, also of Arnold and a research coordinator at Washington University, was pleased with his emphasis on education.

The same was true of Dan Monahan, part of the barbershop quartet, the Rivertown Sound, that sang the "Star Spangled Banner" at the beginning of the town hall and entertained people in the gym after the president had left.

Monahan, a teacher at Visitation Academy, said he was particularly pleased with Obama's emphasis on the "importance of parents in the educational process."

Read the Beacon's coverage from early Wednesday:

The line of ticket holders stretched along the sidewalk and though the parking lot at Fox high school in Arnold early this morning, hours before President Barack Obama was scheduled to arrive at a town hall meeting in the gym.

Everyone has to go through security, which is one of the reasons people had to be at the school hours in advance. By 7:30 a.m., the grounds were teeming with ticket holders, police, secret service, volunteers and security dogs.

Jefferson County's member of Congress, Rep. Russ Carnahan, isn't attending the town hall event because of key votes he has to make in Washington, a spokesman said. Members of Carnahan's staff, however, were among the local volunteers on the school grounds Wednesday morning helping direct people to the appropriate entrances.

Across the street from the school a few anti-abortion protesters had gathered and were holding large posters of aborted fetuses. They object to Obama's support of abortion rights. Such protesters often appear outside events featuring politicians who share Obama's view.

Among those waiting were Barb Kyger and Floy Winka of Arnold. Both had been among the approximately 1,200 people lucky enough to be selected in the online lottery from the thousands who had tried to get tickets to hear the president talk about his first 100 days.

“I just want to hear him him speak. I just like him,” Kyger said.

Winka added that Obama's policies so far give her hope for the future.

Also waiting was St. Louis Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. who came with his daughter LaKeysha Bosley. The alderman said he was eager to hear what Obama had to say about the economy and education, two areas that, Bosley said, the nation and the region must improve for future generations.

Fox High School is in Jefferson County, a political swing territory with a lot of middle-class residents, many of whom hold blue-collar jobs at businesses such as the Anheuser-Busch brewery or the region's auto plants.

Most of the county's elected officials are Democrats, and the county has split narrowly in every recent presidential election. Obama narrowly won here last fall. George W. Bush, a Republican, also garnered a slim victory in 2004.

Retired sheet metal worker Erv Rasch of Pacific was among those in the gym. Waiting for the president to arrive, Rasch, who retired a year ago, said he saw today's town hall as a historic event in part because of Obama's historic status as the nation's first African-American president.

Karen Rasch praised Obama's performance so far, “He's given all of us so much hope,” she said.

The Rasches have traveled a lot overseas and noted that they have seen a marked change in the attitude of Europeans and residents of the Caribbean toward the United States.

On stage, a giant American flag hung in the background. In front of it were gathered several dozen people selected from the audience to sit on the stage behind the president.

The gym was filled with hundreds of people, some of whom had gotten their tickets on line as well as those with political connections.

The latter included Democratic statewide office holders, Gov. Jay Nixon, Attorney General Chris Koster, Auditor Susan Montee and Treasurer Clint Zweifel; St. Louis Democratic chair Brian Wahby; state Democratic chair Craig Hosmer, former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan and next to her state Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, her daughter; and Barbara Eagleton, widow of former Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton; and Bob Clark, chairman and CEO of Clayco.

State Rep. Tim Meadows, a Democrat whose district includes Fox High School, got the tickets he was seeking for his wife and his son, a Marine heading for Iraq. Earlier, Meadows had told the Beacon, he'd been informed that no such tickets were available. Tuesday, though, he got a call from the White House -- and the promise of tickets.

The Rev. Mark Harvey, pastor of New Hope Methodist Church in Arnold, is slated to give the invocation. If he gets the chance, he hopes to share with Obama a problem he has with his retirement home in University City. The home, close to the River Des Peres, was flooded. Because that area is not in an official flood zone, it needs an act of Congress to qualify for federal help.

Mike Thompson, a Vietnam War vet and a retired iron worker, has been tapped to lead the pledge of allegiance. Thompson said he went door to door campaigning for Obama last fall.

The volunteers included Martin Casas, president of the Young Democrats of St. Louis. His job was to make sure that all the officials were properly seated. Casas, who was "thrilled" to help out, said that "after eight years of an incredibly negative administration," he was happy to see "an incredibly optimistic administration.

White House list of the impact of President Obama's economic policies on Missouri

Working Families

  • Making Work Pay: The president's tax cut - which covers more Americans than any in history - is putting more than $1.1 billion back in the pockets of more than 2.2 million Missouri families.
  • $38,681,713 to support child care for working families.

Energy

  • $43,779,300 in block grants to foster energy efficiency in building, transportation and a wide range of other improvements.
  • $128,148,027 to support the weatherization of homes, including adding more insulation, sealing leaks and modernizing heating and air conditioning equipment.
  • $57,393,000 to the State Energy Program, available for rebates to consumers for energy saving improvements; development of renewable energy projects; promotion of Energy Star products; efficiency upgrades for state and local government buildings; and other innovative state efforts to help save families money on their energy bills.

Education

  • $1,383,989,197 potentially available to Missouri to lay the foundation for a generation of education reform and help save thousands of teaching jobs at risk due to state and local budget cuts.

Health Care

  • $2,600,000 to fund two new Community Health Centers, which will serve an estimated 9,340 patients and create a projected 70 jobs.
  • $6,821,393 to expand services at 20 Community Health Centers, which will expand service to an additional 47,261 patients and create or save a projected 111 jobs.
  • $1,917,189 to provide meals to low-income seniors.
  • $270,528,865 made available in Federal Medical Assistance Percentage to protect health care for the families hit hard by the economic crisis and some of the nation's most vulnerable citizens.
  • $3,574,454 in vaccines and grants to ensure more underserved Americans receive the vaccines they need.

Transportation

  • $637,121,984 in highway funds to help build and repair roads and bridges.
  • $85,133,543 to repair and build public transportation infrastructure.
  • $22 million to address airport safety and security, infrastructure, runway safety, increased capacity and mitigation of environmental impacts.

Law Enforcement

  • More than $40.3 million for state and local law enforcement assistance available through the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program. The JAG Program supports a variety of efforts such as hiring and support for law enforcement officers; multijurisdictional drug and gang task forces; crime prevention and domestic violence programs; and courts, corrections, treatment and justice information sharing initiatives.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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