By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009
LOS ANGELES, March 19 -- President Obama sought Thursday to rekindle some of last year's campaign fire in a swing through this supportive city to sell some of the high-priced ideas in his budget plan.
At the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, Obama told a town hall forum that participating in the public debate over his programs will be essential to their success. To a former campaign volunteer who asked how to help the administration, Obama said, "Patience."
"Change is hard. Change doesn't happen overnight," he told the roughly 1,100 people assembled in the gymnasium. "Here's a guarantee. We are not always going to be right. And I don't want people to be disappointed if we make a mistake here and there. The point is are we moving in the right direction."
Obama's two-day visit to California, designed to pitch the changes in health care, public education and energy policy his budget proposes, brought him closer to the fiscal distress and financial straits much of the country is experiencing. But it also removed him from Washington while his administration is defending its management of the American International Group bailout, drafting a new financial regulatory framework, and debating whether the $787 billion stimulus package will be enough to revive the economy.
Leveraging his own considerable star power with help from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, Obama took his message into friendly territory. But he also appeared mindful of Republican criticism that his West Coast trip -- and his appearance on a popular talk show -- should have waited until the AIG issue is resolved.
"Now, there are those who say these plans are too ambitious, that anything we should be trying to do is just focused on the banking crisis, that we should be trying to do less, not more," Obama said in his opening remarks. "In fact, somebody was saying the other -- today, I think, that I shouldn't be on Leno. I can't handle that and the economy at the same time. Listen, here's what I say. I say our challenges are too big to ignore."
Obama plans to follow this California trip promoting his budget with a Tuesday prime-time news conference. And throughout his visit, he has shown some of the heat and stagecraft of last year's campaign, shedding his jacket and rolling up his sleeves at times, stalking the stage with microphone in hand, and speaking more pointedly about the policies of his Republican predecessor and the party's congressional leadership.
He has presented his budget with the same urgency he used to tout his candidacy, casting it as the best way to prevent the "bubble-to-bust" economic cycles of the past. But he is facing resistance from congressional Republicans, who say the $3.6 trillion proposal is extravagant given the difficult times.
Obama won Los Angeles County last year by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, and his reception at the town hall forum was rapturous.
Obama is the first sitting president to appear on a late-night entertainment talk show. The last time he appeared on NBC's "Tonight Show With Jay Leno" was October 2007, when his candidacy for the Democratic nomination appeared to be a quixotic challenge to the potent organization of Hillary Rodham Clinton. She now works for him.
His strident populist tone of a day earlier in Orange County faded, replaced by talk of common sacrifice and some humor. He mentioned AIG only once, saying that the scandal involving $165 million in bonuses had infuriated him, too.
He told Leno that he was "stunned" when he learned about the extra pay.
"The question is, who in their right mind, when your company is going bust, decides we're going to be paying a whole bunch of bonuses to people?" the president asked.
In introducing Obama at the town hall event, Schwarzenegger, greeted by a smattering of boos from the largely Democratic audience, said, "I want to thank him . . . for this great leadership he has displayed over these last few months." The governor backed Obama's stimulus package, which will give California tens of billions of dollars in federal aid.
"I wish the governor had taken a little longer to introduce me," Obama said. "I was standing outside, soaking up the rays."
Several questions concerned California's dire economic situation, particular the plight of its public schools, funded in part by now-falling property tax revenue.
The state has lost more than half a million jobs over the past year, pushing its unemployment rate to 10.1 percent, and its fiscal problems have meant cuts in many public programs.
"Our school is in big trouble," Ethan Lopez, 8, told Obama. He said 25 teachers have been laid off because of budget cuts.
"What do you want to be when you grow up -- have you decided?" Obama asked the boy.
"Yes," Ethan said.
"What do you want to be?"
"A cop," he responded to cheers.
Blanca Villagomez, who asked a question on behalf of her sister, who is a teacher in Los Angeles County, said: "We need help."
As he has in other public appearances during this trip, Obama said increased federal spending for public education in his stimulus plan and budget plan would help hire teachers and build more schools to ease crowding, although local governments would remain responsible for most funding.
A man who identified himself as a German immigrant said, "For the first time, I'm worried about this country -- the stability and the future. . . . Might we follow in the footsteps of Iceland or one day just simply be broke?"
"No," Obama said. "But there is a chance that if we leave such a mountain of debt to the next generation," living standards will fall.
Saying he prefers bipartisanship, the president noted that some of the congressional Republicans criticizing the size of his budget were in office during the Bush administration, which he said oversaw a doubling of the national debt. Obama has said his budget would cut the deficit in half by the end of his term, although some economists say that projection is built on overly optimistic growth projections.
"So I don't put much stock in those political attacks," Obama said. "But what is true is the path we are on is unsustainable."