Obama Holds Town Hall With European Students

President Obama held a town hall-style meeting in Strasbourg, France, Friday with 3,000 mostly high school and college students. He answered questions ranging from plans for the economic meltdown to when the Obama family will get their dog.

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After three days in London at the G-20 Summit, President Obama is in the French city of Strasbourg, right on the border with Germany. It's where NATO leaders are meeting and where Mr. Obama will ask them for a strong endorsement of his new strategy in Afghanistan. But first, the president took part in a town hall meeting with French and German students.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: A morning flight carried President Obama to France and to Strasbourg, where NATO is marking its 60th anniversary. After a meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy, the two leaders met with reporters. Mr. Obama previewed the message on Afghanistan he'll give to NATO leaders.

President BARACK OBAMA: And so this is not an American mission, this is a NATO mission. This is an international mission. France has always understood that. And for that, I'm very grateful.

GONYEA: From there, President Obama headed across town to a small sports arena for a town hall meeting.

Unidentified Woman: Ladies and gentleman, the President of the United States and First Lady Michele Obama.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONYEA: The president began with a lengthy opening statement, where he talked about the economic crisis and about the need to rebuild the trans-Atlantic alliance. The crowd numbered more than 3,000, most of them high school and college students. Mr. Obama began calling on audience members who waved their arms and tried desperately to get his attention. Some mixed the substantive with topics not so serious.

Unidentified Woman: Do you think that the economic crisis is an opportunity to restructure our industries in an ecological and sustainable way? And I also was wondering whether a dog was already in the White House or not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: We are getting a dog. This is a very important question in the United States.

GONYEA: As to the first part of the woman's question, the president said the economic crisis does create an opportunity in this area. He said stimulus money can and will be used to make government buildings more efficient, and to begin to transform America into a greener economy.

Another questioner asked if he ever regrets having run for president. He said, no, describing it as an opportunity to make a difference and to serve. But he lamented the lack of privacy and wistfully recalled the days when he could sit in a cafe and watch the crowd pass by.

After each answer, Mr. Obama scanned the audience.

President OBAMA: I'm going to ask that young man in the suit, you know, because he got dressed up today. I know he doesn't usually wear a suit. Yes.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: I just want to know, well, what do you expect from the French and the European countries regarding the war on terror?

GONYEA: Now, the war on terror is the Bush administration phrase and one the Obama White House makes it a point of not using. He did answer the question though.

President OBAMA: We cannot pretend somehow that because Barack Hussein Obama got elected as president, suddenly everything is going to be okay. It is going to be a very difficult challenge. Al-Qaida is still bent on carrying out terrorist activity.

GONYEA: Mr. Obama went on to say that it is important to show the Muslim world greater respect. He said al-Qaida and others like it do not deserve the same. He also used this answer to, again, talk about Afghanistan, stressing that the U.S. should not bear the burden of the mission alone. The reaction afterward was enthusiastic, to say the least.

Seventeen-year-old Lucas Luke(ph) is from Heidelberg, Germany.

Mr. LUCAS LUKE (Resident, Heidelberg, Germany): Yeah, all of a sudden he was there and everybody was screaming. And it was really, it was a great feeling because you're only used to see the president from the TV. But all of a sudden, he stands right in front and you're just amazed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: And you shook his hand.

Mr. LUKE: Yeah, exactly. That's great.

GONYEA: If this felt like a U.S.-style campaign event, it's no coincidence with President Obama selling his idea of a restored U.S.-European relationship directly to these young people. It could yield benefits even as he holds more formal meetings with heads of state at the halfway point from this European tour.

Don Gonyea, NPR News in Strasbourg.

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Obama Pledges New U.S. Relations With Europe

President Obama pledged Friday to help redefine the role of NATO, acknowledging that relations between Washington and some European members of the alliance had drifted and gotten "sidetracked by Iraq."

Speaking at a joint town hall-style meeting in Baden-Baden, Germany, with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama said a new outline is needed for NATO in the 21st century.

"I don't come bearing grand designs," Obama said in response to a question from the audience. "I am here to listen, to share ideas and to jointly, as one of many NATO allies, shape our future vision."

Earlier, in Strasbourg, France, Obama opened another town-hall session by saying he had a long-term goal of "a world without nuclear weapons." He said he would outline details in a speech in Prague on Sunday, at the tail end of his five-nation, eight-day European trip.

In Baden-Baden, the president said the trans-Atlantic alliance was the most successful in modern history and that although it had come together after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, "we got sidetracked by Iraq."

Obama said bitter feelings that were generated by Iraq needed to be put aside because "al-Qaida is still a threat."

The president also sought to reassure European skeptics that the strategy to fight and win in Afghanistan could be reshaped for success.

He said Europe should not expect America to shoulder the burden of sending in combat troops by itself. In a reference to the Taliban and al-Qaida using Pakistani territory as a sanctuary from the Afghan battlefield, Obama said: "We cannot be effective in Afghanistan unless we have addressed the problems across the border."

But the president does not envision NATO troops in Pakistan, which must act "more effectively to root out the safe havens for terrorists."

Fresh from the G-20 summit in London, the president also spoke about the global economic crisis, saying he was "very proud" of the work they had done but that the problem required unprecedented cooperation.

Speaking on the same day that the latest jobless figures in the United States were released, showing the U.S. unemployment rate at a quarter-century high of 8.5 percent, Obama said the United States shares blame for the crisis, but that "every nation bears responsibility for what lies ahead — especially now."

"None of us can isolate ourselves from a global market," he said. "If we do not have concerted action, then we will have collective failure."

In his Strasbourg speech, Obama said the nonproliferation was just as important now as during the Cold War, because "the spread of nuclear weapons or the theft of nuclear material could lead to the extermination of any city on the planet."

From NPR staff and wire service reports

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