Obama Answers America’s Questions at Town Hall

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In an echo of his campaign, President Barack Obama tackled questions on education, jobs, autos _ even whether legalizing marijuana could jolt the economy _ at a first-of-its-kind Internet-era town hall at the White House on Thursday.

Obama said the precedent-setting online town hall meeting was an “an important step” toward creating a broader avenue for information about his administration. The event allowed him to speak directly to Americans through the Web, bypassing the filter of the news media.

And with more than 100,000 questions submitted to the White House Web site for the forum, it gave the administration a significant number of e-mail addresses for future outreach and the next campaign.

Obama joked at one point about the most popular question from his online audience _ whether he favored legalizing marijuana and could that turn around the economy.

“I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” he said with a smile, adding that he opposed legalizing the illicit drug.

After a brief opening statement, Obama held a microphone and walked the floor in the ornate East Room, gesturing as he answered questions in an event reminiscent of town-hall meetings he conducted in person across the nation during his campaign.

Questioned about growing unemployment, Obama said creating jobs was difficult during these hard economic times, and recommended that the work of the future should be in more high-paying, high-skill areas like clean energy technology.

Many of the lost jobs in recent years, Obama said, involved work that was done by people earning low wages and 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.
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The president was more personal than newsworthy, relating stories about how ovarian cancer claimed his mother at age 53 and about the nurses rather than physicians who did the bulk of the work when his daughter Sasha was hospitalized with a serious medical issue.

“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.

The one small bit of news was word that Obama will soon announce his plan for the U.S. auto industry.

The president says the current model for Detroit’s big three manufacturers is unsustainable and they need to change their ways.

On the home financing crisis, the second question put to the president, he was asked how his programs helped homeowners who are not facing foreclosure but have been deeply hurt by the recession. Many homeowners, after the housing price bubble burst late last year, now owe more on their homes than the houses are worth.

Obama told his Internet audience and about 100 people assembled in the East Room that his injection of stimulus spending into the housing market now makes it possible for 40 percent of all homeowners to take advantage of record-low mortgage interest rates. He encouraged eligible Americans to refinance.

Rates on 30-year mortgages fell this week to the lowest level on record _ 4.85 percent, according to Freddie Mac’s survey, which dates back to 1971 and was down a full percentage point from a year ago.

Responding to a question about improving the American education system, Obama told a questioner that more money and more reform are needed.

And, Obama said, 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.

The president took the questions most asked from a pool of more than 100,000 sent to the White House Web site by 9 a.m., as well as from the audience that was on hand for the event. Some cable television networks carried the event live.

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