Obama Holds Online Town Hall

President Barack Obama held Thursday what was called a first-time White House "town hall" meeting over the Internet. Obama answered questions on his budget and agenda that were culled from tens of thousands received by e-mail. He also spoke to citizens in person and via videoconference.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. The White House recently invited average Americans to put their questions to President Obama. They got more than a 100,000. The questions were posted online, then whittled down in a public vote and today Mr. Obama answered the lucky winners in a town hall style meeting at the White House. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: It was another public question and answer session in the East Room of the White House. The president's second in less than 48 hours, but this time the ink-stained reporters from the old media were shuffled off to one side, while the questions came via the Internet from ordinary citizens like Harriet(ph) in Georgia.

Ms. HARRIET: Hello, President Obama, here is my question for your online town meeting. When can we expect the jobs that have been outsourced to other countries to come back and be made available to the unemployed workers here in the United States?

HORSLEY: The president thanked Harriet for the question and issued a warning. The U.S. is likely to lose more jobs before the recession ends, he said, and creating new jobs will take patience and persistence. Today's event was an electronic extension of a ritual the president said he follows daily, reading some of the thousands of letters that arrive at the White House. It helps keep him grounded, he said, in a town when so much attention is focused on daily ups and downs, and politics is treated like a game.

President BARACK OBAMA: And for the American people, what's going on is not a game. What matters to you is how you're going to find a new job when nobody seems to be hiring, or how to pay medical bills after you get out of the hospital, or how to put your children through college when the money you had put away for tuition is no longer there. That's what matters to you.

HORSLEY: For the most part, the questions put to the president today were more practical and more personal than those of professional reporters in the White House briefing room. People wanted to know how the president's agenda would lower their mortgage, improve veterans' benefits, or protect relatives who work in the auto industry.

ALICE: Hi, Mr. President.

KRISTEN: Hi, Mr. President.

MALORY(ph): Hi, Mr. President.

ALICE: My name is Alice.

KRISTEN: My name is Kristen.

MALORY: And I'm Malory.

KRISTEN: And we are all sophomores at Kent State University in Ohio.

MALORY: Our question is what proposals do you have to make college more affordable and to make student loans easier to get?

HORSLEY: Tens of thousands of people submitted questions for the president at whitehouse.gov. Internet users then voted American Idol style on which ones they wanted Mr. Obama to answer. More than 3.5 million votes were cast to narrow the list.

Pres. OBAMA: There was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: And I don't know what this says about the online audience.

HORSLEY: The president did not endorse legalizing pot as an economic strategy, but he did say his proposed investments in education, health care and alternative energy would plant the seeds of long-term success. That's an argument you can hear in a new TV ad paid for by Organizing for America, the post-campaign version of the 2008 Obama campaign.

(Soundbite of TV advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: Thousands are going door-to-door as part of Organizing for America, gathering support for President Obama's plan to invest in America's future. You can help, too. Call Congress and tell them to support President Obama's budget plan to get our economy moving again.

HORSLEY: Organizing for America is now under the umbrella of the Democratic National Committee. DNC Chairman, Tim Kaine, said last night at a fundraiser, the massive email list and an army of volunteers from the campaign are back in the fight, this time for the president's agenda.

Mr. TIM KAINE (Chairman, Democratic National Committee): So that we can put pressure on to get a good budget passed that invests in a better health care future, better energy future and education, and then move on to one battle after the next, so that we'll have more and more successes to claim.

HORSLEY: Sometimes, like last weekend, that will mean volunteers knocking on doors, reaching voters where they live, other times, like today, it'll mean using any means necessary to bring ordinary citizens into the White House.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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Obama Says Jobless Woes Haven't Peaked

In a "town hall" session that mixed online participants with a White House audience, President Obama said Thursday that job losses may continue most of the year.

Obama said he is focused on creating new jobs, but urged Americans to be patient until businesses are confident enough to begin hiring again.

"We're going to have to be patient and persistent about job creation because I don't think that we've lost all the jobs we're going to lose in this recession. We're still going to be in a difficult time for much of this year," he said.

Jared Bernstein, economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and meeting moderator, said the unemployment rate continued to rise for 19 months after the end of the 2001 recession.

More than 92,000 people submitted questions online by the beginning of Thursday's session, the White House said.

Asked about the nation's struggling auto industry, Obama said that 14 million cars are sold in the U.S. in an average year, but that has gone down to 9 million. He said the industry model does not work, and U.S. taxpayers can't be expected to continuously take the risk to keep carmakers afloat.

Still, "We need to preserve an American auto industry," he said. The president said he would have a major announcement with details about his plans for automakers in a few days.

Obama said he is focused on creating jobs through his energy, health care and education programs rather than bringing back jobs that have been outsourced to other countries. He pushed for support of his $3.6 trillion budget in addition to the stimulus package passed by Congress last month.

Obama said most of the jobs that have been outsourced are low-wage, unskilled positions that would not help the economy.

A number of the questions dealt with jobs on a day when the Labor Department said the number of people claiming unemployment benefits was the highest on record dating back to 1967.

The total number of people claiming benefits jumped to 5.56 million, worse than economists' projections of 5.48 million, a ninth straight record.

A number of questions in Thursday's session dealt with health care, with the president saying he is working toward a universal health care coverage system. "I actually want a universal health care system," he said. "That is my goal. Whether we do it the way European countries do it, or the way Canada does it is another thing."

Obama said it would be best to build on the current system that relies in part on employer insurance plans because people are familiar with them. He said he hopes to sign a health care bill later this year.

Obama joked at one point that a question about marijuana ranked "fairly high" among his online audience. He said he was asked if legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation.

"I don't know what this says about the online audience," he said with a smile, adding that he opposed legalizing the illicit drug.

For the past two weeks, the president has tried to drum up support for his budget proposal. Last week, he held town hall meetings in California and went on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to reassure the public that the administration is making progress toward reviving the troubled economy. On Tuesday, he took to the airwaves with a prime-time news conference.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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