As the debate on the massive economic stimulus legislation heats up and the bill nears a final vote, President Barack Obama took to the road to make his pitch for the bill to the American public in a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Indiana. The choice of Elkhart, a small town that has been hit hard in this recession, was meant to convey a sense of urgency in a debate that has drifted afar from the economic reality facing many Americans. After addressing the crowd in a packed high school gymnasium, the President fielded audience questions concerning the stimulus legislation that were not pre-screened by the White House.
The town hall meeting took place as the debate on the bill continued to dominate the news out of the nation’s capital. Despite weeks of negotiation, it seems as though no one is particularly satisfied with the legislation as it currently is written. The bickering between Republican and Democrats was heating up yesterday as the Senate was preparing for a procedural vote on the amendment offered by Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) to determine if there were sufficient votes to cut off debate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was criticizing the compromise and suggesting that the bill would only get a handful of Republicans supporting it during the final vote. Democrats were maneuvering to build public support for provisions of the bill, such as $16 billion for school construction that was dropped in the Nelson-Collins substitute. Governors across the country were advocating for more stabilization aid as states continue to confront mounting budget deficits and face draconian cuts in services and the prospect of raising taxes.
Sensing the need to make a final push for the bill, the President ventured out of the capital for his first public event since the inauguration. The scene in Elkhart provided a snapshot of the slice of the American public that the White House is trying to win over: white, working class voters in the country’s breadbasket. The town has a 15 percent unemployment rate. Though Mr. Obama turned Indiana from “red” to “blue” on November 4, and paid two campaign visits to Elkhart, the town voted in favor of his opponent, John McCain. The choice of Elkhart was also meant to reinforce the image of a President willing to speak to Americans who were not his natural constituency to build consensus across ideological and partisan lines.
Later in the evening, President Obama returned to Washington, D.C. for his first televised press conference in the East Room of the White House. The President spoke in measured tones as he described the nation’s economic crisis. Before taking reporter’s questions, Mr. Obama reflected on his trip to Elkhart earlier in the day and compared the situation in the Indiana town to other communities across the country. The President said, “As we speak, similar scenes are playing out in cities and towns across the country. Last Monday, more than 1,000 men and women stood in line for 35 firefighter jobs in Miami. Last month, our economy lost 598,000 jobs, which is nearly the equivalent of losing every single job in the state of Maine. And if there’s anyone out there who still doesn’t believe this constitutes a full-blown crisis, I suggest speaking to one of the millions of Americans whose lives have been turned upside down because they don’t know where their next paycheck is coming from.”
It was a message that the President sought to convey with each response to reporter’s questions. He fielded 19 questions and gave considerable time in answering each inquiry. His demeanor, almost somber, was a marked departure from the cool and jovial candidate the media saw on the campaign trail, and even from the playfulness, he exhibited earlier in the day in Indiana. It was clear that the President wanted to use his first press conference to demonstrate his leadership and reassure the public that his plan to revive the economy is sound. He also took a minor detour from his appeal for bipartisan ship when he took a swipe at Republicans saying he was not willing to take advice “from the folks who presided over a doubling of the national debt.”
The Senate is due to vote on the economic recovery legislation today after a 61-36 vote yesterday to cut off debate. Three Republicans and two Independents joined 56 Democrats in that vote. Once the Senate passes the bill it will have to be reconciled in a conference committee between the two houses