President cites populist roots as he pushed emphasis on economy

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010

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!"

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