WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama fielded questions on jobs, the auto industry, universal health care, mortgages, education, veterans' care and legalization of marijuana as he kicked off a first-of-its-kind Internet era Town Hall at the White House. Obama said job creation in America is difficult in a time of economic hardship and that the work of the future should be in more high-paying, high-skill areas like clean energy technology.
Obama was asked at his virtual town hall meeting when people can expect a return of jobs that have been outsourced to other nations. He said the United States has suffered a "massive loss of jobs" because of the deep recession and the turmoil in the financial industry.
Obama also said many of the lost jobs in recent years involve work that was done by people getting very low wages and those with limited work skills. He said it will take some time - perhaps through the rest of the year - before vigorous hiring resumes, and that might not happen until businesses see evidence the economy is rebounding.
Speaking before taking questions sent in by online readers and from people assembled at the White House, Obama said the precedent-setting online town hall meeting Thursday was an "an important step" toward creating a broader avenue for information about his administration.
The president said, "When I was running for president, I promised to open the White House for the American people. This is an important step toward achieving that goal."
Before the meeting got under way, the White House had gotten over 100,000 online questions.
Obama says the current model for the U.S. auto industry is unsustainable and the Big Three manufacturers will have to change their ways.
Obama said the auto industry must be preserved, not only symbolically but for the satellite industries such as suppliers. However, he said his job is to protect U.S. taxpayers and he wouldn't spend federal dollars on "a model that doesn't work."
Obama said sales of new vehicles had been around 14 million, a number that has dropped to 9 million during the economic downturn. In part, that was due to Americans struggling to get auto loans and fears of big-ticket purchases as jobs disappear.
The president said even as the economy bounces back, Detroit can't focus on building more SUVs and counting on low gas prices.
Obama says the ideal path to universal health care is to build on the current system that relies in part on employer plans rather than scrap what has existed for generations.
Asked why the U.S. couldn't opt for a European system, Obama said the United States has a legacy of employer-based plans that have filled the needs of a majority of Americans. He said the country has a set of institutions that aren't easily transformed.
He said he is looking to Congress to find that optimal system and it needs to be overhauled now rather than waiting for decades.
He said the biggest driver of the nation's long-term deficit is Medicare and Medicaid.
Obama was asked about what help is available to Americans who are still making their mortgage payments but are struggling. He replied that his administration has made it easier for Americans to refinance. He says 40 percent of mortgages are now eligible for refinancing. And he said homeowners need to take advantage of that.
Obama says the number of refinanced mortgages is already starting to go up "significantly."
He says it's a way for homeowners to cut their monthly payments.
Obama says the best way to improve the nation's education system is with more money and more reform.
Obama said that greater investment in early childhood education and rewarding talented teachers would significantly improve the system.
He said the current school system - with three months off at midyear - was designed for an agriculture society centuries ago.
Obama said the only reason he had been elected president was because of the education he received, in large part through scholarships and his family's sacrifice. Obama graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School.
Obama also said there has to be a way to ease bad teachers out of the classroom. He was responding to a question from a Philadelphia-area schoolteacher. The woman looked away and refused to answer when Obama asked if she'd seen any teachers whose work was so bad she wouldn't want her own children in that class.
Obama said some people just aren't meant to be teachers.
He also said there needs to be other ways to evaluate teachers besides standardized tests. He said those tests can't measure progress in a struggling school, and that they represent the biggest flaw in the No Child Left Behind program.
Obama said that if teachers are forced to teach based solely on a test, fewer students will be inspired to learn.
Obama says when it comes to making sure returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have the support they need, government can't do the job alone.
He says communities and churches need to reach out to veterans and celebrate their return, and that businesses need to make jobs available to them.
Obama noted that veterans returning from Vietnam weren't treated well in many cases. He called that "inexcusable."
Obama repeated his support for increased funding for veterans programs, and the treatment of health problems such as post-traumatic stress.
Obama had some fun with at least one question, saying he doesn't think legalizing marijuana is a good strategy for turning around the economy.
Obama told the audience that one of the most popular questions was whether legalization of the illicit drug would help pull the nation out of the recession. The president jokingly said: "I don't know what this says about the online audience."
In a serious response, he said he didn't think that was a good economic policy.
Obama called nurses the backbone of the country's health care system and suggested they are unappreciated.
He said that at a time when his daughter Sasha had a serious medical issue, nurses rather than physicians were doing the bulk of the work at the hospital. Obama said: "It was the nurses who were there when she had to get a spinal tap and all the things that were bringing me to tears."
He said nurses must play a key role in setting the country's emerging health policy and said there actually is a shortage of nurses at a time when the country is experiencing rising joblessness.
"It's a way for the president to do what he enjoys doing out on the road, but saves on gas," press secretary Robert Gibbs said of the online meeting yesterday.
By 9 a.m. Thursday, the White House Web site had already logged more than 100,000 questions.
Obama used the Internet to build a grass-roots movement that delivered the presidency and raised unheard-of money. Now in power, he is employing the same online network and style to speak - unfiltered - with Americans.
The president already has taken that tactic on the road, spending two days on the West Coast last week at town hall-style meetings and appearing on Jay Leno's late-night talk show. It offered easier questions and a chance to get his message to the widest possible audience.
"It's not a whole lot different than were we in California doing the meeting," Gibbs said. "It's just we'll have people hooked up from a lot of different places all over the country, but he'll be able to do all that from the East Room."
Already, the White House is connecting the old-school press conference with the new-media event. It will be an easy contrast between skeptical reporters and supporter-selected questions.
Political operatives say the White House's strategy is a way to reach a demographic key to Obama's election.
"In the new world of online media, formal press conferences are just one element or program to get the message out - to those, usually older, who watch such things on TV. The online version he is doing is an alternative way to get out the same message, in this case on the budget, targeted toward a different audience, usually younger," said Morley Winograd, a former adviser to Vice President Al Gore who now runs the Institute for Communication Technology Management at the University of Southern California.
"In both cases the questioners are just props - or, in some cases, foils - for the star, Obama, to deliver his message. But in the latter case, they get to self-nominate instead of be selected by elites," Winograd said.
In a way, it's part campaign-style politics and part "American Idol," said political strategist Simon Rosenberg.
"Barack Obama is going to reinvent the presidency the way he reinvented electoral politics," said Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network and a veteran of presidential campaigns. "He is allowing everyday people to participate in a way that would've been impossible in the old media world."
Obama's campaign allowed supporters to organize themselves to go door-to-door and raise money. Because of that, many felt an ownership of the campaign and devoted countless hours to giving Obama the Democratic Party's nomination and then the presidency.
Obama's aides are taking that step forward, incorporating tools that let visitors to the White House Web site pick the questions Obama will answer, turning the president's Thursday event into a democratic press conference.
"Average people get to shape the outcome, like 'American Idol,'" Rosenberg said. "This is not a couch-potato age. Average people are expecting to be part of the process."
Yet the process lends itself to softer questions and ones the White House is eager to answer, Republicans noted.
"The president is going back to the safe confines he was always most comfortable with, in this case a friendly audience where the focus is on the sale rather than the substance," GOP strategist Kevin Madden said.
Obama remains a popular figure, although the country and Congress are reluctant to embrace his budget proposals. Aides say that the more the president talks about his plans - and frames his budget proposal through real-world needs - the more Americans would be swayed.
In that vein, Obama aides want to keep the questions about energy, health care and education, the three key priorities in his first budget document. Some of the questions will be from the Web site, others via YouTube and some from an audience of about 100 people representing teachers, nurses and small-business employees.
"The president just thinks it's another opportunity to talk directly with the American people about the challenges that we have, the choices and the decisions that we're making, and the path that we're taking to get us back to prosperous days," Gibbs said.
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