By Justin Sink
President Obama faced few tough questions at a town-hall event on Friday in New York, with none of the 10 questions fielded by the commander in chief addressing the major controversies and foreign policy concerns that have dominated headlines in Washington.
Left unasked were queries about recent violence in Syria and Egypt, surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency, controversies over the IRS's political targeting or the administration's handling of last year's terror attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Instead, students and faculty generally asked the president how his higher education and domestic policy programs might affect their lives.
On student aid, the president was pressed by one student to address instances where parents financially cut off students who had come out as homosexual. The president said that he did not "suspect that we'll have special laws" pertaining to such an instance but believed that attitudes were changing across the nation.
Another woman in the crowd asked the president about altering the financial aid formula for students who lived in wealthy areas like New York City. She said that she remained ineligible for certain loans and grants because her parents' income was high, relative to other parts of the country, but that the cost of living in her region far exceeded other areas.
That question seemed to give the president the most pause — after outlining that such a formula would be "difficult to administer," he said he'd talk it over with the secretary of Education and get back to the student with a personal reply.
The event opened with a question from a member of the university's nursing school, who asked Obama how his signature healthcare law would expand the nation's nursing corps.
"It is a great question," Obama said, adding that "without buttering you up, I love nurses."
Subsequent questions included how the president would deal with the effect the sequester was having on Head Start programs, something Obama has decried at length in recent months, as well as how the government could respond to for-profit universities profiting from federal loans. One high school student asked the president about increasing financial aid for graduate school.
"Across the board, in graduate school, what we want to do is to provide incentives for folks who need specialized education but are willing to give back something to the community, to the country. Doctors who are willing to serve in underserved communities, nurses who are willing to serve in underserved communities, lawyers who are willing to work in the state's attorney's office or as a public defender," Obama said.
Obama also was asked about funding programs to transition to green energy, allowing for an easy segue into a familiar hobbyhorse for the president.
The closest Obama came to a question on international relations was a query from a college sophomore about financial aid for students from abroad.
"Obviously, when it comes to federal grants, loans, support, subsidies that we provide, those are for our citizens. And, you know, a lot of Americans are having a tough time affording college, as we talked about, so we can't spread it too thin," Obama replied. "What we can do, though, is to make sure that if tuition is reasonable for all students who are enrolled, then it makes it easier for international students to come and study here as well."
Obama's most contemplative moment seemed to come when he was asked to reflect on the state of race relations and opportunities for minorities to access education as the nation approached the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.
Obama said that, while the nation had made "enormous strides," that "the legacy of discrimination, slavery, Jim Crow, has meant that some of the institutional barriers for success for a lot of groups still exist."
"Let's assume that we eliminated all discrimination magically with a wand, and everybody had the goodness in their heart," Obama said. "You'd still have a situation in which there are a lot of folks who are poor, and whose families have become dysfunctional because of a long legacy of poverty, and live in neighborhoods that are run down and schools that are underfunded and don't have a strong property tax base."
He went on to say that Americans needed to break out of the mindset that "if we're helping people in poverty, that must be hurting me somehow; it's taking something away from me."
"What I think we have to understand is that America has always been most successful, we've always grown fastest, and everybody's incomes have gone up fastest, when our economic growth is broad-based, not just when a few people are doing well at the top, but when everybody's doing well," Obama said.