By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 6:21 PM
From start to finish, the hour-long telecast underscored the public's frustrations and the White House's challenge. The questions illuminated the deep dissatisfaction the president's allies and opponents feel about his performance. The president's answers raised anew the issue of how effectively he communicates on the economy.
Will the town hall provide a wake-up call to the White House? Administration officials may believe that their policies are correct, but even voters disposed to be with the president have their doubts. The president may believe that he has set the foundation for long-lasting growth and prosperity. But he hasn't found a way to provide the short-term reassurances people are looking for as the economy struggles.
The opening questioner set the tone for the event. She described herself as a middle-class mother of two and the chief financial officer for a veterans organization. What she said cut to the heart of the president's problems.
"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," she said. "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."
A 30-year-old recent law school graduate said he had made use of student loans to go back to school in order to pursue a career in public service. Now he can't even pay the interest payment on those loans now.
"Like a lot of people in my generation, I was really inspired by you and by your campaign and message that you brought, and that inspiration is dying away," he said. "It feels like the American dream is not attainable to a lot of us."
From the other end of the economic spectrum came critical questions about Obama's attitude toward business. A billionaire businessman said, "I think the one thing to do is to not make people in business feel like we're villains or criminals or doing something wrong."
A hedge fund manager who went to law school with Obama told him: "I represent the Wall Street community. We have felt like a pinata. Maybe you don't feel like you're whacking us with a stick, but we certainly feel like we've been whacked with a stick."
The owner of a small business who was sympathetic to the president said he believed the administration was making good policy decisions. "Yet for some reason the public just doesn't get it," he said. "I need you to help us understand how you can regain the political center, because you're losing the war of sound bites, you're losing the media cycles."
To the first questioner, Obama offered a long answer about things his administration has done to make college loans more affordable, to prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to children with preexisting conditions, to prevent credit card companies from ripping off customers.
"My goal here is not to try to convince you that everything is where it needs to be," he 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."
What Obama might have said to his law school classmate is that Wall Street deserved to be whacked like a pinata, given its role in bringing down the economy, the bailouts financial firms received and the feeling among many Americans that Wall Street has gotten more help than they have. Instead he said, "There's a big chunk of the country that thinks that I have been too soft on Wall Street."
To the frustrated small-business owner he explained that he has had to take unpopular decisions - such as bailing out automakers - that will pay dividends for the economy and the taxpayers over time. He didn't broach the subject of why his administration can't do a more effective job in the public relations battle. Instead he said this:
"The rhetoric and the politicizing of so many decisions that are out there has to be toned down. We've got to get back to working together. And this is part of my job as leader. It's not just a matter of implementing good policies, but also setting a better tone so that everybody feels like we can start cooperating again, instead of going at loggerheads all the time."
This comes at a time when the president has been on the campaign trail offering sharply partisan rhetoric and even attacking individual Republican candidates running for office this fall.
One of the persistent mysteries about the president is why someone who began his adult life as a community organizer, working with economically displaced workers in Chicago, has had so much difficulty making a connection with voters on economic issues. That was a problem during his presidential campaign. From the questions on Monday, it remains a problem today.
In the closing minutes, CNBC moderator John Harwood asked the president whether he would like to debate House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) before the November election. Without saying yes, Obama framed the argument that he wants to have between now and the election.
During the eight years that George W. Bush was president, he said, average wages in America went down 5 percent, record surpluses became record deficits, Republicans enacted tax cuts without paying for them and the country engaged in two wars that also weren't paid for. Long-term challenges - dependence on foreign oil, rising health care costs - were put off.
"We have tried what they're offering," he said of the Republicans, adding that over the next six weeks, "I'm happy to have that debate."
He will certainly have that debate. But the debate he really needs to win is with Americans who have doubts about what he and his administration are doing. Improvements in the economy will help, but they may not come quickly. The president's immediate challenge is to restore confidence in his own leadership.