Obama Holds Town Hall In Florida

President Obama took his message from Wednesday's State of the Union address on the road, traveling to Florida where he announced $8 billion in federal money for high-speed rail. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden attended a town hall-style meeting in Tampa, designed to allow the president to speak directly to Americans and to address their worries about the economy.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And Im Madeleine Brand in California.

President Obama took his job's message from last night's State of the Union address on the road today. He traveled to Florida to announce $8 billion in federal money for high-speed rail. Its all part of his push to create jobs by greening the U.S. economy. Mr. Obama was joined by Vice President Biden at a town hall in Tampa. The event was designed to allow the president to speak directly to Americans and to address their worries about the economy. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Tampa.

DON GONYEA: This trip and others the president has taken recently seem designed to convey a sense that Mr. Obama not only understands but that he remains committed to doing the things he talked about during the campaign, back when Mr. Obama seemed to have the Midas touch when it came to communication, before he had to govern.

When Mr. Obama took the stage today, he acknowledged his slumping poll numbers as he struggled to get health care legislation passed and seeing the jobs picture remain bleak.

President BARACK OBAMA: I make no apology for trying to fix stuff that's hard...

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: ...because - I'll be honest with you. I'll be honest with you. Joe and I are both pretty smart politicians. We've been at this a while. The easiest way to keep your poll numbers high is to say nothing and to do nothing that offends anybody.

GONYEA: And as he did last night during his State of the Union address, the president insisted he wants to work with Republicans who are willing to work with him.

Pres. OBAMA: I want the Republicans off the sidelines. I want them working with us to solve problems facing working families, not to score points. I want a partnership. What we cant do, though - here is what Im not opened to: I dont want gridlock on issue after issue after issue...

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. Obama: ...when there are so many urgent problems to solve.

GONYEA: Then came questions from the audience. As is often the case with town halls, they are unpredictable. If the White House's topic of the day was high-speed rail and the economy, questions came from the audience on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on same-sex marriage, and on ways to help convicted felons readjust to society. His toughest question on the economy came from a small business owner frustrated that he cant get a loan.

Unidentified Man: And I speak for all businesses in the United States.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: We are tired of dealing with things. And I dont understand, and this is my question for you is that why cant you use the SBA just like you lent directly to Wall Street, you lent directly to the automakers, you lent directly to the banks, why cant the government make small businesses available directly to us?

GONYEA: The president said the government is giving more money to the Small Business Administration to make loans more easy to get. And he said fees and red tape have been waived.

Pres. OBAMA: The challenge that we got is that even SBA loans are generally run not by the SBA. The SBA essentially works with local banks, community banks, neighborhood banks to process the loan and essentially the SBA underwrites the loan.

GONYEA: The questioner's frustration was evident. He shook his head as the president spoke.

Pres. Obama: But, well, I am absolutely sympathetic to what you're saying because I'm hearing it everywhere I go.

GONYEA: The president was warmly received here in Tampa except for the large knot of Tea Party protesters his motorcade passed through on his way to the sports complex where the town hall was held. He ended the event with a call for greater civility in Washington. But he acknowledged too that he doesnt expect that to happen overnight.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Tampa.

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