CINCINNATI - Town Hall meetings can be filled with surprises for politicians. How they handle citizen questions and still get the desired message across is the challenge.
So it was for President Obama Monday in the Ballroom of Music Hall in the Over-the-Rhine. He spoke for 25 minutes about his plans to revive the U.S. economy from the middle class out, then took seven random questions from among the 1,600 Democratic supporters. The Cincinnati Fire Department said 1,200 people were in the ballroom and 420 were in another part of the building.
The inquiries included jobs, unemployment benefits, educational opportunities, energy exploration, reuniting the country, gay rights and help for small businesses.
A young girl named Julie even asked Mr. Obama which Girl Scout cookie he preferred.
"I'm pretty partial to those Thin Mints," he said.
When Delicia White raised her hand, the president pointed her way and said it was a woman's turn to ask a question. However, White deferred to her husband, Tony, to ask about the barber shop/beauty salon called Anything Else he runs in Camp Washington.
"He wants to know what you can do for self-employed businesses with less than 10 employees working," she said.
"You can't do that. I called on the young lady. That's bait and switch," Mr. Obama said while chuckling and flashing a broad smile. "Let him ask the question. I'll call on two women in a row. We got cheated here."
Tony White, who has run the shop for 10 years, then asked, "What will you be doing or if there's anything you can do for self-employed businesses with employees with less than 10 employees and also, when can I cut your hair?"
As the audience began to laugh, Mr. Obama didn't miss a beat in his response.
"You would not want a president who is disloyal to his barber, right?" he said. "I mean a man and his barber, that's a strong connection. So, I'm not going to let you cut my hair because my barber would be hurt."
As the laughter died down, the president turned serious and said the key to helping small businesses become bigger is tax cuts. He said he's tried to provide that assistance the past three-and-a-half years.
"We actually provided 18 different tax breaks just targeted at small businesses since I've been in office," he said. "It's the reason why we have pushed the Small Business Administration especially when the recession had just hit to extend additional financing and to waive fees for small businesses."
The president referred to the audience members as "tiebreakers" saying in a close election with Republican Mitt Romney they have the power to swing the vote into the Democratic column, just as they did in 2008.
"I want to restore the basics of the middle class. They built this country," he said. "When the middle class does well, we all do well."
That includes a number of platform planks...
- Invest in education
- Lower tuition costs
- Invest in American energy
- Change the tax code for manufacturing firms
- Rebuild the nation's infrastructure and put construction workers back on the job
- Wind down ongoing wars and invest half of what is being spent into "nation building here at home"
- Reduce the deficit to help the economy grow
"I still have confidence in the American people," the president said.
Vocational school teacher Jeff Whitesell wanted to know what the Obama Administration is doing and will do to help prepare young people for jobs as plumbers or bridge builder and assist firms in hiring them. He asked that because not everyone wants or needs to attend a four-year college.
"Can we have people come in, give tax breaks to these companies to come and help schools to teach the schools what they really need need for these kids?" he wondered.
The president said it was a mistake that years ago vocational education was de-emphasized because there's now a shortage of folks in fields that need technical training.
"Part of what I'm talking to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about is how do we work with high schools so that young people who have got an aptitude -- whether it's in graphic design or in electronics or you name it -- that they can start getting on a pathway so that they are being trained for the jobs that actually exist now," he said.
A young girl named Taylor had a question on behalf of her father, an unemployed construction worker.
"Will he have a job before his unemployment runs out?" the 12-year-old wanted to know.
Obama replied, "The first thing I want to do is put your dad back on the job rebuilding America."
He acknowledged that construction was the industry hit the hardest when the housing bubble collapsed and it's been the slowest to come back. That's why the president said he's been working since last September urging Congress to expand the nation's efforts to rebuild roads, bridges and schools.
"These aren't folks who were looking for a handout," he said. "They want to be on the job so they have an opportunity to do work that we're going to have