ALLENTOWN, PA—President Obama kicked off his jobs listening tour this morning by hearing from residents of this struggling region, once the seat of the nation's steel industry but now groping for an economic identity.
The president chose an area that is representative of Middle America to begin the series of town hall meetings aimed at hearing the concerns of Americans and developing solutions. The tour is part of Obama's "White House to Main Street" effort and comes a day after a forum on jobs and economic growth held at the White House.
"Too many Americans have felt the gut-punch of pink slips," Obama told a receptive crowd. "Eight million Americans have lost their jobs. Every one of us knows someone who has been swept up by this storm."
Obama offered up a three-pronged prescription for what ails the job market: green jobs across various fields; reform in the health care system; and a renewed vigor toward education so that the United States can compete better in the global marketplace.
He spoke on the same day that the Labor Department issued a report showing an unexpected decrease of job losses, a development he called a good start but not indicative that the country's economic problems were nearing an end.
"We've still got a long way to go. I consider one job loss too many," he said. "Good trends don't pay the rent. We've got to actually grow jobs and get America back to work as quickly as we can."
On the education point, he recalled his recent trip to South Korea that starkly demonstrated differing attitudes toward getting students to learn.
"Their kids aren't spending a whole bunch of time playing video games or watching TV," he said. "They're working in math, they're working in science, they're working in foreign languages. They are preparing themselves to compete."
Despite the unexpectedly good news on employment this morning, the president faced a room full of anxious people wondering what the White House will do to stimulate the jobs climate.
"It's very hard for somebody like me to get answers," said Brian Roberts, 36, who worked for a civil engineering firm before getting laid off in June 2008.
Roberts, who lives in Carbon County and is studying elementary education at Lehigh/Carbon Community College where Obama spoke, said he nevertheless sympathizes with the difficult nature of the president's task.
"I feel he's doing a fine job," he said. "He inherited a problem and there are a lot of people who expect this to be solved overnight. The reality is it's not going to happen that way."
Obama engaged in a half-hour or so exchange with audience members. Questions ranged from the humorous—one student asked whether the president would consider legalizing drugs, prostitution and some nonviolent crimes—to weightier issues such as getting small businesses access to credit and protecting consumers.
He gave a lengthy dissertation on the causes of the profligate lending that led to the financial crisis, before pledging to lean on banks to start lending more prolifically.
"We've been successful in stabilizing the financial markets," Obama said. "Here's the problem: Having been way too easy in terms of giving credit, now banks have swung in the opposite direction. They're not giving credit to some very credit-worthy businesses. They used to say 'yes' to everything and now they're saying 'no' to everything."
He pledged that the White House will "push as hard as we can to say, 'Try to get the right balance.' "
On health care, the president said making coverage affordable is not just a medical issue but also one of importance to the economy, particularly small business.
"Us being able to control health care costs and giving small businesses the opportunity to pool with other small businesses around the country so they have the same kind of leverage with insurance companies that the big guys have—that's an economy plan, that's part of jobs growth," he said.
Despite the high anxiety of double-digit unemployment, the president found sympathetic ears at the forum. The area strongly supported Obama in the 2008 elections, giving him nearly 60 percent of the vote against Republican John McCain.
"I would tell him to keep up the good work," said Elizabeth Sweedo, 60, who lives nearby the college. "It's a difficult situation right now. There's always room for improvement."
Unemployment for the Lehigh Valley—a largely blue-collar region and home of auto racing legend Mario Andretti and former heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes—stood at 9.8 percent in October. That's a shade below the national average—which dipped in November to 10 percent—but worse than Pennsylvania's 8.8 percent rate.
Home sales soared 30 percent in October while the median price dropped 4.9 percent to $173,000, also near the national average.
The Allentown-Bethlehem area's reign as one of the world's leading steel producers had been declining for years and ended in 1995 when Bethlehem Steel essentially shut down.
Like other former bustling manufacturing centers around the United States, the area has employed a variety of strategies to regain an economic foothold.
Most recently Las Vegas Sands opened a new casino on the former Bethlehem Steel site with famed chef Emeril Lagasse's restaurant as a centerpiece. The Philadelphia Phillies in 2008 moved their triple-A farm team to Allentown and named it the Iron Pigs—a nod toward the pig iron used in manufacturing at the Bethlehem mill.
The area's employment strength has been primarily education and health care, with the local landscape dotted by a slew of health care facilities and their satellites. Economic development officials have tried to cast the area as a warehousing hub and have had varying levels of success in doing so.
"I'm optimistic he's going to lay out a very good plan," said Robert Freeman, a Democratic state representative from Easton.
Earlier in this visit, Obama stopped off at the Allentown Metal Works buildings where he talked about the company's prospects and the industry. The company makes heavy steel construction components including trusses for the transit center beneath the World Trade Center.
"They were working hard and not just to forge the heavy machinery that makes this country run...You could just tell the extraordinary pride the workers take," Obama said. "These workers have been doing the best they can to stay afloat in a brutal recession that has hit folks like them hardest of all."