President cites populist roots as he pushed emphasis on economy

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010; A08

TAMPA -- President Obama on Thursday pushed back at the notion he has changed his rhetoric to become a "fighter," saying fighting for people had been a bedrock of his presidential campaign and his entire career in public service.

Obama seemed to relish tweaking reporters -- the people with the "pens and pencils," as he put it. "They got worked up last week. They said, 'Is he trying to change his message? Is he trying to get more populist? Is this a strategy that he's pursuing, to boost this, that, the other?' " Obama said, drawing laughs and applause.

"I just have to do a little rewind here of how we ran our grass-roots campaign," he continued. "Because I've got some news of my own here: I've been fighting for working folks my entire adult life."

The day after delivering his first State of the Union address, Obama traveled here to carry forward his central message: that he will make jobs, and the economy, his first priority in the year ahead. A centerpiece of the trip was a discussion of $8 billion in federal funds that he has proposed dedicating to high-speed railway infrastructure. But it was also a return to the town hall format that allowed him take off his coat and engage in questions with ordinary Americans.

The president paused after a woman asked why the IRS continues to penalize struggling families for making early withdrawals from a 401(k) to get by, when corporations have been given tax breaks in tough times. Obama then shared that he and his wife, Michelle, had to do just that a number of years ago, when they had a family emergency And, yes, they had to pay the 10 percent penalty.

"But it was what we had to do, Obama said. "And fortunately, we were young enough where we could absorb that hit. A lot of families aren't in that position . . . it's bad enough having to draw it down, but then also to have to pay taxes on top of it is really tough.

He said his administration has considered a narrow set of exceptions.

Obama held his town hall meeting with Vice President Biden at the University of Tampa and took questions on subjects ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to same-sex marriage to the high-speed railway being built between Tampa and Orlando. Steve Gordon, who owns a company that makes water-saving devices, said he could hire 500 workers but could not get a bank loan -- expressing a frustration that has plagued the Obama administration, which has been unable to get banks to lend to small businesses.

"We are tired of dealing with banks," Gordon said. "I know you care. I know you're trying, and I appreciate the pledge of $30 billion to small businesses. But lending to the banks to lend to us is not the answer. It's just not."

In his State of the Union speech, Obama announced that he will transfer $30 billion of repaid bank-bailout funds to community banks to lend. Gordon suggested that the Small Business Administration lend directly to businesses.

Obama ultimately could say only that he sympathized with Gordon's plight. "You should be aware that we have increased SBA loans during the course of this year, by 70 percent in some cases," the president said.

Gordon shook his head unhappily, and another audience member shouted, "It's not enough!"

"I understand it's not enough, because you still want a loan," Obama said. "It's not like we haven't thought of, 'Why don't we use the SBA?' -- we have." But, he said, the agency is too small to handle all the vetting of loans nationwide.

Asked about the Middle East from someone sympathetic to Palestinians -- a question that provoked some boos -- Obama described his commitment to Israel and his sympathy for the Palestinians, saying that internal politics are creating challenges for both sides. His administration has made little progress in solving the decades-old problem.

"We are working to try to strengthen the ability of both parties to have to sit down across the table," he said.

White House officials said they have no illusion that the president will receive a post-address "bounce," and instead hope to keep moving attention toward the economy. Obama has set aside health care as the focus of his agenda since losing a Senate seat in Massachusetts to Republicans last week, leaving that quagmire to Democratic leaders in Congress while he turns to issues that many Americans say are more important to them.

He did not mention health care until more than halfway through his speech Wednesday night, and in his appearance at a packed auditorium here, he did not dwell on it until his closing remarks.

Fresh off his Wednesday-night address, Obama quoted himself repeatedly, reviving promises he had made the night before. His most passionate remarks came in his own defense. He recalled traveling to Tampa two weeks before the 2008 election to make the same case he was making Thursday -- evidence of his consistency but also a reminder of how hard he had found it to implement his promises.

"You know what I said? This is a quote. People can check," Obama said, quoting himself as saying: "Change never comes without a fight."

"That was true then. It's true now," he added. "Change never comes without a fight, Florida. So I won't stop fighting. I know you won't, either."

Obama stepped off the plane and immediately into Florida politics, shaking hands with Gov. Charlie Crist, who is in a fierce battle for the GOP nomination for Senate. Crist's opponent, Marco Rubio, has attacked the governor for hugging Obama during a stop in February and for supporting the federal stimulus package.

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