President Obama on Monday came face to face with supporters disillusioned they have not seen the change they voted for and fearful the American Dream has slipped out of reach.
During a town hall focused on jobs and the economy carried live by CNBC, Obama offered reassurances to those voters. He also argued he has not tried to vilify big businesses and dug in on his pledge not to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
The crowd selected by the business cable network for the one-hour town hall was friendly and largely deferential to Obama, but questions from people who voted for Obama provided the most revealing glimpse yet into why the president and his Democratic allies are facing a potential disaster in November.
“I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now,” said one African-American woman.
“I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people. And I’m waiting, sir. I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet,” she said.
Obama said he understood the woman’s frustration, then ticked off a number of policies he has put in place that he said will help the middle class, including an expansion of student loans and new consumer protections for credit card users.
“My goal here is not to try to convince you that everything’s where it needs to be,” Obama said. “It’s not. That’s why I ran for president. But what I am saying is, is that we’re moving in the right direction.”
While a report issued Monday found the recession ended in June 2009, Tuesday’s event reflected the fact that many voters are still feeling the daily pain of high unemployment, a continuing housing crisis and a struggling economy.
Another questioner at the CNBC event, Ted Brassfield, a 30-year-old who cannot find a job, told Obama: “It feels like the American Dream is not attainable to a lot of us.”
Obama again sought to reassure Brassfield, saying the American Dream is not dead and that he is working to grow the economy again.
Obama took head-on the criticism that his policies have been anti-business, and argued his administration has done much to stabilize the economy.
“Look, let’s look at the track record here,” Obama said.
“When I came into office, businesses — some of the same commentators who are on CNBC — were crying, ‘Do something!’ because as a consequence of reckless decisions that had been made, the economy was on the verge of collapse. Those same businesses now are profitable; the financial markets are stabilized.”
Obama has come under criticism from business groups for some of his policies, notably the Wall Street reform bill and proposals to raise certain business taxes, as well as for rhetoric that has sometimes bashed corporate America.
Some of his leading critics have been personalities on CNBC.
Early in Obama’s term, CNBC star Rick Santelli called for a “Chicago Tea Party” in criticizing the economic stimulus package, while Larry Kudlow, host of another daily CNBC show, said Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address was a declaration of war on investors, entrepreneurs, small businesses, large corporations and private-equity and venture-capital funds.
Given polls that show most Americans skeptical about or disapproving of Obama’s economic policies, the administration wants to fight back against assertions that its policies are stifling economic growth.
“I think that if you look at what we’ve done over the last two years, it’s very hard to find evidence of anything that we’ve done that is designed to squash business as opposed to promote business,” Obama said.
One of the Obama policies attracting criticism from business groups is his support for ending tax cuts signed into law by President George W. Bush for individuals making more than $200,000 and families making more than $250,000, but Obama was applauded when he dug in on his opposition on Monday.
“I don’t have the math,” Obama said of extending all the tax cuts.
“I would love to do it. Anybody in elected office would love nothing more than to give everybody tax cuts, not cut services, make sure that I’m providing help to student loans, make sure that we’re keeping our roads safe and our bridges safe, and make sure that we’re paying for our veterans who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. At some point, the numbers just don’t work.”
Obama also addressed the Tea Party movement, which has criticized bailouts of auto companies and banks and was given early visibility on CNBC.
Obama challenged Tea Party supporters and candidates to say how they would govern and what programs they would cut to reduce the deficit.
“The challenge, I think, for the Tea Party movement is to identify, specifically, what would you do? It’s not enough just to say, ‘Get control of spending.’ I think it’s important for you to say, ‘You know, I’m willing to cut veterans’ benefits’ or, ‘I’m willing to cut Medicare or Social Security benefits’ or, ‘I’m willing to see these taxes go up,’ ” Obama said.
The president said it is “premature” to say House Minority Leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerRift widens between business groups and House GOP Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Debt ceiling games endanger US fiscal credibility — again MORE (R-Ohio) will be Speaker of the House and portrayed himself as making tough decisions with no regard for political risk.
“If I were making decisions based on November, then I wouldn’t have done some of the things that I did, because I knew they weren’t popular,” Obama said. “But they were the right thing to do. And that’s got to be my top priority.”
This story was originally posted at 2:11 p.m. and updated at 8:05 p.m.